As I walked along the footpath outside Flamengo’s old ground in Rio yesterday, there was a sudden blaring of horns and sirens and I looked up to see the traffic swiftly parting to make way for a big security convoy: motorcycle outriders, a police car, a police jeep, two trucks full of soldiers, an ambulance and, slap bang in the middle, the Netherlands team coach.
It might only have a been another example of the routine overkill with which the authorities go about getting a World Cup team to its training base here in Brazil but, on the day that was in it, it was tempting to fantasise that the security detail had been heavily beefed up to ensure the safe movement through the city of the tournament’s new Public Enemy Number 1 — Arjen Robben.
From choppers to floppers, the Dutchman had replaced Luis Suarez as the World Cup’s scandal du jour — at least until a bit later on a day in which news of one apology would suddenly trump another. But, first things first: the media out here have been as obsessed as the rest of the world with Robben’s leading role — the theatrical allusion seems entirely appropriate — in the Netherlands’ late, late comeback against Mexico.
If the Dutch were ever in need of a charm offensive coupled with more than minor damage limitation, they made the right choice in the first place by making their training base at the old home of Flamengo, the ‘people’s club’ which commands by far the biggest support in Rio and, indeed, all of Brazil.
There’s a statue out front of the club’s favourite son Zico, and the man himself has even turned up at a Dutch training session here, pictured in all the Rio papers holding up the orange shirt. But, yesterday, it looked like Robben would have a tougher audience to play to than ‘Fla’ fans or icons.
First, he had to win over the media — who, having been told he would make a statement, turned up in large numbers for the daily press conference — and through them try to make the case for his defence before the court of popular opinion.
Robben, and the rest of the Dutch players who’d survived Sunday’s hothouse affair, restricted their training to a light warm down session. Afterwards, in the gymnasium which has been converted into a media room, the assumption was that he would undergo a much more taxing work-out.
Indeed, there was a rumour going around that battle-lines had been drawn and questions in English might not even be admissible because, it was said, the Dutch FA were fuming that, in some of the coverage in Britain, Robben’s apology the previous day for a dive in the first half of the game against Mexico had been transposed in such a way as to make it seem like he’d admitted to diving for the match-winning penalty. In a ground-clearing statement issued before the press conference began, the Dutch FA (KNVB) insisted Robben’s comments to Dutch TV station NOS had been misinterpreted.
But, when the press conference finally began, and the leading questions did come, Robben was singularly unfazed, his tone almost one of ‘nothing to see here, folks, move along now please’.
There was also a touch of a righteous man wronged as he expressed the view that what he called his honesty had not necessarily been the best policy, given how his admission of one dive had failed to have him absolved of cheating in the match-defining penalty incident.
That had been a clear foul, he insisted again and, furthermore, it was “a shame” he said, that the ensuing furore had eclipsed a tremendous Dutch comeback.
One English journalist asked if he’d been concerned that Fifa might have taken retrospective action against him
Robben seemed almost bemused by the question, laughing as he replied: “No, not at all. Why? I mean, no. No. Not afraid, no. What I said before, no? I’m an honest guy. I’ve said it now three times, four times and I can repeat it but that’s it. It was a deserved win and we are very happy.”
And before yesterday was out, he ought to have been even happier — something was stirring in Montevideo that would take a huge chunk out of the Robben headlines.
Suddenly, we were back from floppers to choppers again, as Luis Suarez, in a moment of what we might call mature reflection, owned up to the tooth, the whole tooth and, ah well, you know the rest…
Taken at face value — and especially since he has already been handed his Fifa punishment — it’s a welcome if still belated admission of the truth although one which, quite clearly, will not do any harm at all to his future career prospects and, as such, can also be interpreted as a strategic attempt to limit any further long-term damage.
Indeed, already there are reports that Barcelona required just such an apology in their bid to extract the player from Anfield.
But, whatever happens next, the world will be watching and holding Suarez to account, particularly on his claim “that there will never again be another incident like this involving me”.
Just as, in the much more immediate future, the world will be watching Robben when he next takes to the field, against Costa Rica in a World Cup quarter-final in Salvador next Saturday.
If they never knew it before, they are both marked men now, in more ways than one.
Timeline: How the saga unfolded
June 24: Luis Suarez sinks his teeth into Italy defender Giorgio Chiellini. “These situations happen on the pitch, we were both just inside the area, he struck me in the chest with his shoulder and he hit me in the eye as well,” he said.
June 26: Suarez is handed a nine-game international ban and a four-month suspension from all football.
Uruguay captain Diego Lugano: “Indignation, impotence, I think that is what we all feel. We would all like a more just world, but this world simply does not exist.”
Diego Maradona: “The Fifa sanction is shameful, they have no sensitivity towards the fans, they might as well handcuff him and throw him in Guantanamo.”
Suarez’s lawyer Alejandro Balbi: “This is so grotesque and absurd that the CAS (Court of Arbitration for Sport) will have to revoke this unjust ruling.”
Uruguay coach Oscar Tabarez: “We forget the scapegoat is a person who has rights.”
Uruguay president Jose Mujica: “FIFA are a bunch of old sons of b*****s”
June 28: “I lost my balance, that destabilised me and I fell on top of my opponent. At this moment I hit my face against the player leaving a small bruise on my cheek and a strong pain in my teeth and that’s why the referee stopped the match. That is what happened.”
June 30: “The truth is that my colleague Giorgio Chiellini suffered the physical result of a bite in the collision he suffered with me.”
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