Arjen Robben, a soccer demigod temporarily assuming the form of a bald, 31-year-old Dutchman, gave an interview to the delightful Men in Blazers last month. Those that are fans of Robben’s manic, devil-be-damned playing style — “like a mongoose in cleats,” Men in Blazers host Roger Bennett said — might have hoped for his speech to be every bit as expressive as his play.
It was not to be. Nope, as it turns out, Robben is just like most professional athletes — in English, anyway: spare with words, prone to understatement, and apparently unaware of how completely frickin’ ridiculous it is, what he’s doing out there.
As a journalist, I can’t fully express how frustrating this is. We want to tell stories that take interesting people and bring them to life. We want their words to burst with color and detail and emotion. We wait for that magic quote that makes a story sing.
And when you see this Dutch dynamo play — for his club Bayern Munich or for Holland — it sings. I see an ode to human ambition, hubris, a firecracker with legs.
But then you ask this Dutch dynamo a question, and he says stuff like,
I’m not a guy that likes to talk about himself; I just want to show it on the pitch. And yeah, people like it, and you get these nice compliments. Especially after the World Cup, I had a lot of very, very nice reactions from all kinds of people, also in football. And yeah, that’s something really, really nice.
So we rediscover the journalist’s burden: talking to extraordinary people whose quotes, by comparison, are flatter than a three-day-old soda. (See also: Djokovic, Novak.)
And you can hear Bennett, such a huge fan of Robben’s, struggling with this. You can hear it in his questions, the interviewer dying to hear a response every bit as colorful as the man on the field. And I was too. But it wasn’t to be, and so here’s what Arjen Robben said, and here’s what I think his game would have said, if it could speak English.
(By the way, there are still some lovely morsels in the MiB interview, so you should listen if you like Arjen Robben. OK, tongue back into cheek.)
ROGER BENNETT: You’re amazing to watch; you’re a very modest man. Watching you run at opponents, trick them, turn them inside out. Can you describe, Arjen, what goes through your mind when you receive the ball on the wing, the defenders come toward you, they’re trying to close you down, and then you just go for it?
ARJEN ROBBEN: Yeah it’s just like, I think I play a lot on intuition. I always played, also when I was young, always wanting to attack the defenders and just trying to create something, just scoring goals or giving a teammate the final assist. It was always my goal in a game just to try and do that.
ARJEN ROBBEN’S EVIL ID: What goes through my mind? I’ll tell you, Roger. First, I switch to my power song. Then, I become a hunting dog on the chase, utterly deaf to any distraction. I move obsessively toward goal, but not because it is scoring that I lust for. I move because I am driven by obsession itself.
See if you can spot him.
ROGER BENNETT: The amazing thing about you Arjen is, when you get the ball, everybody knows what you’re going to do with it: defenders, your teammates, the fans in the stadium. Everyone’s screaming, “He’s going to cut inside and shoot!” We all know, but no one can stop you. It’s like you’ve hypnotized them with that flapping arm of yours. How do you explain it? Is it hypnotism?
ARJEN ROBBEN: I think you always…yeah…it’s a lot of timing when I run at defenders, it’s like, you have to do it at the right moment. But on the other hand, I think, it’s also good and I think [inaudible] I have that special move where I go inside. But I think there’s also a lot of variation in the game and I try to develop that as well.
ARJEN ROBBEN’S EVIL ID: When I first entered the game, no one was screaming. No one knew what I was going to do — including myself, since I never know what I am going to do, and that is what makes me dangerous in the first instance. But after I pulled my patented move several times, with no meaningful resistance from some of the best defenders in the world, something changed in their eyes. They turned frozen with fear. Now, when I charge down the wing like my hair is on fire, people have an even better sense of what I’m likely to do, and that merely makes them more terrified that they can’t stop it. You can score a lot of goals like that.
ROGER BENNETT: Arjen, you played in the Netherlands, you played in England, Spain, Germany. Got to talk to you about America. Lampard, Stevie Gerrard, David Villa. Are you finding more players now talking about MLS, talking about America as an option with their teammates and agents?
ARJEN ROBBEN: Yeah, I think it’s a good thing. I think the MLS football — or soccer as they call it in America — I think you can see a very good development. And I think, uhm, I think it’s, yeah, it’s getting better and better and more interesting, as well for players in Europe to move to America. And I think I can see myself as well playing in America one day. So maybe that happens.
ARJEN ROBBEN’S EVIL ID: Rog, remember back before the internet, when your friend would give you the code to unlock “God mode” on your favorite video game, and suddenly you’d find yourself among all the same goblins and demons and bad guys with guns, but now you could use them as a way just to get your jollies?
Well, then I think about lining up against some fresh-out-of-NCAA fullback, whom the national team can’t wait to see in action but whose first assignment is to guard me. And I’m 39, and I see Thierry Henry smirking in the fourth row, and the kid gives a little tug on my jersey in the box. And I give him an icy glare from hell. Then I hear the ball, I score on the volley, and I dash over so Thierry can see me. But his seat’s empty.
(Arjen Robben will miss the rest of the Bundesliga and Champions League seasons this year due to a torn calf muscle.)