Injuries, politics, money-raising & Messi: Why things didn't work out for Arjen Robben at Real Madrid

The Bayern winger faces his former club in the Champions League semi-finals this week. But had things turned out differently, he could have been lining up in white, not red

By Alberto Pinero & Ben Hayward

Sometimes things are just not meant to be. Arjen Robben represents one of the star attractions in this week's Champions League semi-final first-leg clash between Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. But had things turned out differently, he may have been playing for the Spanish side and not the Bavarian giants.

Robben arrived at Madrid in the summer of 2008 amid much expectation. Then president Ramon Calderon had failed to deliver a big-name signing the previous summer, having promised Cristiano Ronaldo, Cesc Fabregas and Robben himself. So the following year, obliged to boost his rapidly declining credibility, Calderon brought in the Dutchman - seen by Madrid fans as the least-attractive alternative in that particular trio - for an excessive and even exorbitant fee of €36 million. That was hardly Robben's fault, but the pressure was on before he had even kicked a ball at the Santiago Bernabeu.

Jupp Heynckes spent a single season as coach of Real Madrid and it was one to remember as the Spanish side claimed the Champions League in 1997-98 to end a 32-year drought. A fourth-placed finish in La Liga saw the German's tenure terminated, however, in what seems the harshest of dismissals. Heynckes has described this tie as "special". Winning it would surely be even more so.
Jose Mourinho is in the hunt for his third Champions League triumph at a third different club, but the 49-year-old's road to Madrid began at the Bernabeu in the 2010 final. Madrid had failed once again in Europe and the knives were out for coach Manuel Pellegrini. Mourinho, meanwhile, was leading Inter to European glory and the Portuguese passed his Madrid job interview by beating Bayern at the Bernabeu. Now he meets them again.
Robben was actually the last signing made by Claudio Ranieri at Chelsea, but the Dutchman spent three years working with Mourinho, winning six trophies under the Portuguese before becoming frustrated at a change of formation. He eventually left in August 2007, just a month before his manager. And prior to their next meeting, the 2010 Champions League final, he claimed Mourinho prefers winning to playing "nice" football. The game itself was proof of that. But what will happen this time?
to make matters worse, he wasn't doing that nearly enough. Despite a promising start to his Madrid career, Robben - as he had been at Chelsea - was restricted by a series of niggling injuries and it seemed that just when he was about to return to peak fitness, he would be struck down once more. The club even devised a special plan to ease the winger back to a prime physical condition. But they never really managed it.

Despite the injuries, the Dutchman's first season was a success as he appeared 28 times in all competitions but was part of the side which claimed the league title under Bernd Schuster. Things, it seemed, could only get better.

On a personal level, they certainly got better as the wideman managed to stay clear of the treatment table more than he did in his debut season, although he still suffered his fair share of injury woes. In total, he appeared 37 times in all competitions in his second term and scored eight goals.

After Schuster was ousted for claiming his Real side could not beat Pep Guardiola's blossoming Barcelona at Camp Nou, Robben played a key role in the team's attempted title fightback under Juande Ramos, as Madrid amassed 52 points from a possible 54 to move to within just four of the Catalans ahead of the Clasico at the Bernabeu. Back from yet another injury and ludicrously likened by the Madrid press to Lionel Messi, the Dutchman started that match, playing a part in his side's first goal and setting up their second, too. But Madrid lost 6-2 and after one of the most damaging defeats in the club's history, there was no way back for the capital side in the title race. Nor was there for Robben.

Florentino Perez returned as president in a blaze of optimism and glory the following summer. And with the construction magnate, the big names finally signed up. In came Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema and Xabi Alonso. Out went Wesley Sneijder and Robben.

The former Chelsea winger had enjoyed a positive pre-season, scoring three goals and playing his part in another four. But Madrid were looking to recoup some funds following a vast summer outlay and Robben was also a victim of club politics, associated with the pre-Perez establishment under Calderon and unfairly chastised for the failures of that tenure.

"He [Florentino] gave up on two exceptional players, Sneijder and Robben, simply because I had brought them in," Calderon claimed last year.

So Bayern's €25m bid was accepted, even though coach Manuel Pellegrini later admitted he would have liked both Robben and Sneijder (who was sold to Inter) to have stayed at the club, while the player himself claimed he had been forced out against his will.

"I didn't want to go, but the club wanted to sell me," Robben explained at the time. "There have been many lies, but at the end of the day I have to decide what's best for me, because I want to play and to show everyone the footballer I am."

But that was then. And almost three years on from his Real departure, there now appear to be no regrets for Robben.

"I had some very good years at Madrid," he said this week. "It's a great club, and it's obviously special to face my old team-mates, but I have been at Bayern for a time now and I am happy here. I am thinking above all about getting to the final, whoever the rival is."

With Madrid, however, it just wasn't meant to be.

Follow Alberto Pinero on 

Follow Ben Hayward on 
“Renunció (Florentino Pérez) a dos jugadores excepcionales, Sneijder y Robben, sencillamente porque los traje yo”,