On Saturday afternoon, Arjen Robben announced he was coming out of retirement to rejoin FC Groningen. It clearly awoke something in his old Bayern Munich team-mate Franck Ribery.
Ribery is 37 years of age. He is older than Eric Trump and Carmelo Anthony. He was born before the cinema release of Octopussy. When Madonna released her debut album, he was three months old.
And yet, in the year 2020, he continues to demonstrate that, when he wants, he can be truly unstoppable.
At Bayern Munich, while Robben was performing his trademark cut inside from the right, the Frenchman was routinely found on the opposite wing.
This was a player who, throughout his career, has been able to thrive by not always looking like the kind of player who should be capable of the things he can do.
He’s a man who will zip past you just as you’re contemplating how someone of that build can change direction at anything beyond a manageable pace, and who can fire the ball round, past or through your goalkeeper before you get the chance to finish asking, “What’s backlift?”
Since joining Fiorentina in the summer, he has shown signs of the player who took 23% of the Ballon d’Or vote in 2013, more than Cristiano Ronaldo one year before or Lionel Messi one year after. He has a goal or assist every 178 minutes, but few will be as impressive as the one he scored against title challengers Lazio at the Stadio Olimpico.
Oh my word…Franck Ribery has still got it! 😍
A piece of absolute brilliance from the 37-year-old puts Fiorentina in front against Lazio 🙌 pic.twitter.com/vB78gk3MwS
— Premier Sports 📺 (@PremierSportsTV) June 27, 2020
You can see Ribery toying with the Lazio defence as he nurses the ball on the left touchline, and by ‘toying’ we mean treating the ball like a yo-yo.
One second he’s easing it out from beneath his feet, giving the approaching defenders an illusion of control, and the next he’s gone in a flash as if they were mere statues.
It’s as if Marco Parolo and Patric are secret keys which, when moved in a specific pattern, open up a passage through which he can run unhindered. Any suggestion of agency on the part of either man is simply laughed off.
At the very most, they might be able to turn their heads to get wind of what Ribery has done with his feet, but let’s not pretend things would go any differently if either Lazio man was granted a do-over, either alone or with their team-mate covering their back.
We get this knowledge from Francesco Acerbi, who turns his back not just because he’s been fooled by the direction of the Frenchman’s footsteps but, after being fooled once, he knows better than to run the risk of a humiliating repeat.
After all that, the exasperation of goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha almost feels subdued, in the sense that he’d have every right to be even more visibly furious. Of all the things Franck Ribery should be able to do, ‘take you by surprise’ should be way down the list.
That’s what the real greats can do, though. They can paint you the fullest picture of themselves, leaving what feels like zero doubt about what they’re capable of doing to you, and still somehow produce the kind of skill and movement you’re powerless to stop.
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Each time you rewatch the goal, you gain more sympathy for the Lazio defenders. Eventually, you come to accept that this isn’t solely a case of poor defending, but rather one of string-pulling from the Fiorentina man.
While you can wonder aloud about whether Ribery has ‘still got it’, it’s a little naïve to assume you know the answer before the question has been vocalised.
When Arjen Robben watched this, he must have taken some pride in his former partner in crime playing as if the good old days never truly went away.
By Tom Victor