"I am almost crying," gasped Arjen Robben. "It's the emotions, they're so strong."
The Dutchman had just emerged from the dressing-room in the Arena Castelao, having guided his team through to a World Cup quarterfinal. He struggled to keep calm. Robben was then asked about whether he might have "dived" to win the last-minute penalty by which Holland had just defeated Mexico 2-1. He had not, said Robben, but went on, as if in a confessional, to volunteer he had indeed "dived" earlier in the match to try to gain a free-kick.
An admission does not lessen a flaw, yet it was unusual to hear Robben so candid about an aspect of his game that has aggravated opponents for over a decade. First, there's his appearance. At 20, he already had a receding hairline, and the lived-in face of a man 10 years older. Yet he could, and still does, sprint astonishingly fast - at one point in the 60m dash he set off on to score the fifth of Holland's goals against Spain in their dramatic opening match at this World Cup, he was timed at 37km/h.
Put him in civilian clothes and he does not look like an athlete. Many of his off-field habits are unlike those of the stereotype modern, elite player, too. In Holland's game against Mexico, we witnessed something distinct from the Robben of arrogant reputation. The penalty he gained in the last minute of stoppage time, six minutes after Holland had still been trailing 1-0, was taken not by him but by substitute Klaas-Jan Huntelaar.
Robben had turned down the chance to score his fourth goal of the tournament, and offered it instead to Huntelaar. Granted, Robben has missed some pressure penalties in his career - notably in Bayern's lost Champions League final of 2012 - but he has a fine technique from 11m.
And he loves nothing more than a duel, one-against-one. He is at his captivating best running at a marker, usually a full-back, and these days, usually at a left-back, whom he likes to cut across onto his preferred left foot.
Time and again his best goals, his team's best openings, come from that manoeuvre. He is in many ways the most predictable of the great attacking players of his generation. But there's a big difference between knowing which way Robben will try to slalom past you, and actually stopping him. [http://www.timeslive.co.za]