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Robben and Germany: The Decade-Long Choke

Much has been made of Dutchman Arjen Robben’s almost preternatural ability to choke on soccer’s biggest stages. There was his series of oh-so-close shots in Bayern Munich’s losing effort against Inter Milan in the last match of Europe’s most prestigious club competition, the Champions League, in 2010; his indefensible blunders in the final game of the 2010 World Cup; his uninspired and easily-corralled penalty kick in the overtime period of this year’s Champions League Final. And then there was the time he actually choked someone—his own teammate Thomas Müller.

Robben’s habit of coming up short wouldn’t be so maddening if he weren’t otherwise one of the world’s finest players—and if this tournament weren’t one of his last chances at redemption. (Robben—despite a hairline that strongly suggests otherwise—is only 28 years old, but the current iteration of the Oranje is starting to look a bit long in the tooth.) Alas, things didn’t begin auspiciously. Robben’s play in the Netherlands’ opening match was marred by selfishness, and the Dutch fell to the underdog Danes 1-0.

Today, Robben will have a shot to make up for it as the Netherlands take on Germany in what is effectively a must-win game. Yet all this talk of Robben’s final-match shortcomings masks soccer’s much realer—though frequently entangled—championship-game curse: The inability of any German team to win the deciding contest of a major tournament in the last ten years.

A brief history: In 2002, Bayer Leverkusen, of the Bundesliga (the German soccer league), lost in the Champions League Final to Real Madrid. That same year, Germany was defeated 2-0 by Brazil in the World Cup Final. A revamped national team then fell against Spain in the clincher of the 2008 Euro Cup. Next came the finish-line stumbles of Bayern Munich—a team aided by (who else) Arjen Robben—in the closing match of the 2010 and 2012 Champions League. When it comes to having its teams win final games, no soccer-playing country (and that’s basically all of them) has been blueballed as hard and as often as Germany.  

Indeed, the reason Chancellor Merkel’s face in this photo so perfectly sums up the feeling of queasy exhaustion is that she has had plenty of opportunity to practice the expression. (And for what it’s worth, I can’t help but think that the unparalled failures of German teams of the past decade to get the job done when it matters most bodes poorly for those hoping the country will come through in the clutch in the pending EU crisis.)

So what on Earth will happen today when the German national team faces off against a squad that has Arjen Robben in its starting lineup? Luckily for us, games in the group stage can end in a tie, and moreover, the championship-game curse only manifests itself, in, well, championship games. Let’s just be glad the tournament directors were smart enough to recognize this in advance and design the brackets in such a way that the latest Germany could play the Netherlands is in the semi-finals. Otherwise, the Euro 2012 final may have forever been known as the game where the penalty kick shootout never ended.