Robben's 'Last Dance': Homegrown hero out of retirement to rescue Groningen

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Arjen Robben Groningen Bayern Munich Chelsea GFX
Getty/Goal
The legendary winger has made an immediate impact at his former club, who had been hit hard by financial crisis caused by the Covid-19 outbreak

A high-profile name returning to the club where it all started for him is by no means unheard of in the Dutch footballing landscape. 

Robin van Persie did it when he donned the Feyenoord jersey again after spells with Arsenal and Manchester United, Ibrahim Afellay went back to PSV following his time with Barcelona and a host of other foreign clubs, while John Heitinga represents the most recent example of an academy product returning to Ajax

Arjen Robben’s decision to re-sign with Groningen is slightly different, though.

For starters, the winger had already called time on a hugely successful career that took him to PSV, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich

And then there’s the fact that Groningen are a club of a slightly different stature than Robben himself.  

Sure, the 'Pride of the North' have enjoyed some notable triumphs throughout the years, producing plenty of top-class players along the way, but they are in no position to challenge for silverware in the Eredivisie – and Robben certainly grew accustomed to winning trophies after leaving the club in 2002. 

That did not stop Robben from doing what felt right to him, though.

This is not just another story of a player ending his career at his boyhood team; this is about passion, loyalty and about giving back to the club that gave him so much.

Robben first joined Groningen at the age of 12, after snubbing interest from Ajax, and enjoyed instant success, winning the Under-14s league title with a team that also featured Sergio van Dijk, Jordi Hoogstrate, Angelo Zimmerman and Anton Jongsma – all of whom went on to turn professional.

FC Groningen C1 Arjen Robben (embed only)

FC Groningen C1 Arjen Robben II

Groningen's first team, meanwhile, had to settle for 10th place in the Eredivisie that season, as they were still struggling to emulate their glory years from the early 1990s.

Fast-forward to 2020 and not an awful lot seems to have changed for Groningen, who were ninth when the Eredivisie was prematurely halted due to the Covid-19 outbreak.

That mid-table placing doesn't tell the whole story, however.

Like many smaller teams, Groningen were hit hard by the financial crisis caused by coronavirus. Indeed, they were forced to lay off several employees back in May in an attempt to balance the books, with the pandemic costing them an estimated €5 million (£4.5m/$5.6m) – which accounts for roughly 25 per cent of their annual turnover.

With that in mind, sporting director Mark-Jan Fledderus and general director Wouter Gudde decided to ask the club's prodigal son to come home.

"We first went to Munich to speak to him about coming to play for us, just days after he retired in May last year," Fledderus explained at a press conference.

"That didn't happen, but we stayed in touch and then arranged secretly with his wife to travel down and talk to him again last month.

"On May 21, I drove to Munich at the invitation of [Robben's wife] Bernadien. We surprised Arjen there. It was a great moment.

"We ordered sushi from their favourite restaurant and we made a compilation of footage from the documentary 'The Last Dance' and footage of Robben.

"We then said that the best way to help our club was to play football with us."

It was a proposal that Robben was always likely to accept.

The 36-year-old has always remained a keen Groningen fan and regularly showed face at the club's Euroborg stadium even while at Bayern.

Arjen Robben Groningen GFX

He was never likely to turn down the chance to help the club that gave him his big break in the professional game.

"This is fantastic. I came through the academy here and I grew up in these surroundings," Robben commented on his imminent comeback.

"I asked myself why I'd do it, but the answer is simple. I love this club and it's about loyalty. That was decisive. I would not have come out of retirement for any other club, not for Bayern either."

And before he's even played a single minute, Robben is making the difference again at Groningen.

Within days of the announcement of Robben's return, Groningen sold an additional 2,500 season tickets for 2020-21, taking their total to over 11,000 – and counting.

On Tuesday, the club had to ask their fans to bear with them as they were struggling with the high demand for replica kits for next season, with Robben's No.10 shirt unsurprisingly the No.1 choice.

It's very much unlikely that Robben will be able to repeat Michael Jordan's 'Last Dance' in terms of championship glory – unless Luis Suarez and Virgil van Dijk all of a sudden feel the urge to come home as well.

However, in this uncertain economic climate, survival would be considered success – and Robben has already significant boosted Groningen's bank balance.

Rather than worrying about financial collapse, the fans are now looking forward to the future thanks to a touching show of loyalty from one of their past players.

In that sense, at least, Robben's 'Last Dance' could be every bit as beautiful as Jordan's.

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