Commentary

Ribery and Robben -- great players, poor sportsmen

In sports, one fan's hero is another fan's object of derision and contempt. Successful players on a rival team may illicit begrudging admiration, at best, but there are few things more difficult to stomach than the open floodgates of adulation for world class players who have channeled all their talents into a team you decry. I'm thinking in particular of Franck Ribéry and Arjen Robben, both of whom rounded off their storied league careers at the weekend with Bayern Munich by coming on as subs to score in front of an adoring home crowd. Bayern hammered Eintracht Frankfurt 5-1 to lift their seventh successive Bundesliga shield.

There are plenty of good things to be said about both players. I'm not going to regurgitate their impressive stats and list of honors -- you can look them up in a digital second. Also worthy of praise is the fact they've stayed loyal to one club for the past decade, quite unusual in an era when stars are often moved on by their agents in the name of making even more cash. They have also fought multiple injuries and then returned to the field in the same scintillating form they showed in their younger days. Ribéry also experienced a hard-scrabble childhood that prompts admiration of his subsequent achievements.

The pair have excelled as out-and-out wingers some decades after such players went out of fashion. Any young player learning the art of wing play should study videos of Robben cutting inside his defender, executing seventeen different kinds of feint. I'm sure there's a long highlight reel somewhere of his trademark, curling left foot-shots into the top corner of the opposing goal.

Yet I don't like them, and I won't miss them. It's nothing to do with their off-field antics, which in Ribéry's case are well-documented. It is worth mentioning, though, that he is strongly disliked in his native France for his lead role in inciting his international teammates to strike at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. I'll also be happy that I never again have to skip through a fawning interview with Robben in the German sports paper kicker, which pretty much consists of the question, "Arjen, you are so amazing. Can you tell us more about that?"

What stops me from whistling in awe at Ribéry and Robben, in the way that I might do with Lionel Messi, Eden Hazard or Kevin de Bruyne, is not even the feeling that they've been playing for a club that is a bully in its own league. That Ribéry in particular might have been more ambitious in his choice of team, perhaps in a league where the fullbacks were harder to beat .(Robben played for both Chelsea and Real Madrid before joining Bayern in 2009.)

No, what really irks me is that the way they conduct themselves on the field is detrimental to their talents. Ribéry is notorious for throwing an elbow at opponents and at often getting away with it -- either through having done it surreptitiously, or through the lenience of referees punishing this violent conduct with a mere yellow card (most famously in the 2013 Champions League final against his future teammate Robert Lewandowski, when he escaped with a mere verbal warning). Robben, meanwhile, has a reputation for something else that's very hard to overlook -- throughout his career he's been prone to falling over in the penalty area with intent to deceive.

The only time I ever saw Robben play live was in late 2015, when he came with Bayern to Frankfurt on a Friday night. Bayern had won all of its first 10 league games, but on this evening couldn't breach the Eintracht defense. Shortly before the end, Robben threw himself to the ground in the Frankfurt penalty area and received a yellow card for simulation. The game ended 0-0, and his action summed up the spoiled attitude of players used to winning every week. I don't understand why sportsmen blessed with so much talent feel the need to cheat. When they later watch the repeat slow-motion replays of themselves diving for a penalty, or elbowing a fellow professional, why don't they feel so ashamed that they vow never to repeat the sin? Their transgressions are not just counter to the morals of sporting behavior, but seem as unnecessary as a best-selling songwriter ripping off somebody else's tune, or an acclaimed writer stooping to plagiarism.

I frankly don't care what players do off the field, as long as it doesn't damage anyone beside themselves. However, when they conduct themselves during games in the way that Ribéry and Robben have done throughout their careers, I'm happy to see them go. They may have been great players, but they were very poor sportsmen. All the medals, goals, crosses and stepovers will never disguise that these were two professionals of mediocre character.

(Ian Plenderleith is a European-based soccer writer. His latest book, "The Quiet Fan," is available here. His previous book, "Rock n Roll Soccer: The Short Life and Fast Times of the North American Soccer League," is available here.)

17 comments about "Ribery and Robben -- great players, poor sportsmen".
  1. Kent James, May 20, 2019 at 4:03 p.m.

    Harsh commentary, but I think accurate.  Sublime talent, on field character? Not so much.  I think the problem lies not just with the players, but the culture that condones getting away with whatever you can.  When people are amused (rather than appalled) at dives, or when "real competitors" are applauded for doing whatever it takes to win, even if "it" is illegal.  Teammates who praise such tactics (because they seem to work) have a share of the blame.  But if you cheat to win, isn't the victory hollow?  If not, it should be...

  2. Ric Fonseca replied, May 20, 2019 at 5:28 p.m.

    What IS apalling is that the "play acting," is not just taught  but emulated by players of ALL ages, and it appears that "coaching condoning" such behavior, is so pathetic that even the game officials can't or are unwilling to whip out a red card.  And yet, the announcers themselves are just as much to blame when they show/speak their ignorance of the LOTG, and yet when a VAR or replay is shown, and proves them wrong they still pose themselves as ignorant or just plain think their comments are spot on.  Sad, but thanks for the article!

  3. Ric Fonseca replied, May 20, 2019 at 5:31 p.m.

    P.S.  Didn't Roben karate-kick an opponent during a WC game, and was a player involved in the famous PK vs Mexico, that engendered an almost year-long commentary whether it was or not a PK?

  4. Wooden Ships replied, May 21, 2019 at 8:17 a.m.

    Ric, wasn’t the PK called against Rafa? As defenders, you stick your leg out (stab) you’re already beat. Tough call though.

  5. frank schoon replied, May 21, 2019 at 8:22 a.m.

    Ric, that karate kick was done by Nigel de Jong

  6. beautiful game replied, May 21, 2019 at 1:15 p.m.

    It's not the culture of diving, it's the incompetence of FIFA to put a fast rule into place. Why blame the player when the rules of the game are not enforced. You talk about character? What about the FIFA character that enables diving. Tour direction at the player lacks characters.

  7. Kent James replied, May 22, 2019 at 12:01 a.m.

    Beautiful, the attitude of doing anything you can get away with is the problem; while the referees share some of the blame, the main problem is the idea that players have no ethical responsibility to play by the rules (even if the referee is not enforcing them as well as he should).  The referee should be calling fouls that are accidentally committed by people trying to play by the rules, not be the only barrier between lawful play and anarchy.  If you know you can deflect a ball into the goal using your arm and get away with it, do you do it? What about diving to get a penalty kick?  Or tripping a player about to shoot on your goal? Do you commit these fouls and improve your chances of winning, or do you try to abide by the rules because that is the way the game is supposed to be played (and only by playing fairly will any victory mean anything).  Most of the controls should be internal (players consciously abiding by the laws of the game); if there are too many players without such controls, it gets ugly fast.  There will always be a few who try to get away with what they can, but we need peer pressure to reduce that behavior rather than enhance it.

  8. frank schoon, May 20, 2019 at 5:37 p.m.

    Who Cares!!!  I know it is a slow news day in soccer and PG's column ,likewise is Ho Hum, but Ian's article has about as much interest as going along reading the safety procedures the air stewardess gives as the plane starts up.....

  9. R2 Dad replied, May 20, 2019 at 11:49 p.m.

    I think Ian does, as he's had to referee players who mimic these legends on a regular basis. Read his blog posts over at Referee Tales--poor sportsmanship comes up as one of the traits that most often ruin his matches. It's fun light reading, in a "I'm glad I didn't have to do that match" kind of way.
    That MX vs NL WC match, where Robben wandered around inside the 18 until he found a leg to trip over, still makes the Mexicans grumble.

  10. frank schoon replied, May 21, 2019 at 8:19 a.m.

    R2, good info. I had no idea about Ian’s background....what a whiner....
    Interesting, all great stars have their tricks or rather, I would say ,ways of protecting themselves against the onslaught of defenders who often get away with things the refs fail to see.
    For example, when Cruyff dribbles ,you will always see him flailing and moving his arms around in the air and many a defender have been smacked in the face or like one player from Korean player whose job it was to annoy Cruyff in every which way, had to leave the field after receiving an elbow in his eye from Cruyff.
    The average soccer fan/coach has little to no clue what really goes on out there in the heat of battle....

  11. Mike Lynch, May 20, 2019 at 7:48 p.m.

    Some would say they are uber competitive and thus justified. I agree with Ian. I think it's sad they were not confident enough in their skills to compete fairly. I guess we'll never get to see their true ultimate ability.

  12. David Richardson, May 20, 2019 at 9:27 p.m.

    Now I look forward to the comments from Ian on other "hero's" as they retire.   Will we hear about the things the Ronalo's &  Messi's did to help themselves win games that weren't quite on the up and up. I realy can't wait to hear what he has to say when Luis Suarez retires!  That should be good reading.  Maybe the old saying, "If you can't say anything good about someone, don't say anything at all", might be appropriate here.

  13. frank schoon replied, May 21, 2019 at 8:21 a.m.

    David...I wouldn’t hold my breath on this whiner!

  14. beautiful game, May 21, 2019 at 10:38 a.m.

    Ribery and Robben showcased their skills for over a decade and should be complemented for their consistency, loyalty, and passion.

  15. frank schoon replied, May 21, 2019 at 10:59 a.m.

    BG. Exactly....

  16. Hat Trick, May 21, 2019 at 11:36 a.m.

    I am really curious as to what the purpose of this article is.

  17. beautiful game, May 21, 2019 at 1:22 p.m.

    Ric...your comment about "emulation" is spot on...FIFA and its referee enablers are the cancer. Players are not stupid and they'll continue to utilize any unlawful tactic until the perps in FIFA take off their con-artist's blindfolds. 

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