He gets booed in stadiums and pilloried outside them. The irony is that Arjen Robben - the Deplorable Dutch Diver as hysteria would have us believe - has been the best player at the World Cup.

Devout football followers with 4-4-2 tattoos might disagree so I say this from a tactically lay point of view. In other words, Robben - to these eyes - is the best player to watch at this World Cup. He was sensational against Costa Rica, where he again popped up everywhere and caused headache after headache for opponents with his speed, changes of direction, tricky feet and imagination.

Another irony is the maligned Robben is almost the only reminder of when the Dutch played a comprehensive and creative game that was the forerunner to the glorious Spanish and Barcelona inter-passing revolution which, sadly, invited the last rites at this tournament.

The Dutch were an ugly disgrace in the 2010 World Cup final, and compared to the glowing reputation which still trails them from the 1970s, downright boring and inept in yesterday's quarter-final against unfancied opponents from Central America. A nasty Dutch attitude was typified by replacement goalkeeper Tim Krul's antics in the shootout, where he got in the faces of Costa Rican penalty takers having been sent on as a specialist stopper.


Robben can also be a beast, but at least the beauty still shines. He is a diver now and then, we all know that. Then again, his remarkable skill forces opponents into borderline tactics. He is so busy and good that he gets into more situations than others of being impeded, where going to ground becomes unavoidable or an option. Compared to the number of 50/50 situations he creates, Robben is no worse than many others.

The bigger problem with football is cynical defending, not diving. There are the very obvious fouls and plenty of them, and then there are all the little clips and jersey pulls and cases of leaning across the path that are illegal, yet have a good chance of not being whistled. The penalty box can turn into a venue for unpunished wrestling contests during corners.

Robben is as much a victim of modern football as he is a villain and super sharp replays often show he has been fouled. He is also an easy target for opposing tacticians, although yet another accuser - Costa Rica's coach Jorge Luis Pinto - embraced the Dutchman during the match in Salvador.

Robben outshone everyone in the quarter-final matches including Lionel Messi although the Argentine master did have a few delicious moments in the win over disappointing Belgium. A long Messi pass along the ground, of almost impossible dimensions, stood out. Robben v Messi is the comparison of comparisons in the semifinals.

Unfortunately but predictably, the tournament is grinding towards the final, itself a far from pretty event in recent World Cups.

The magic of the pool games is being overwhelmed by cynicism and caution that usually afflicts modern World Cups in the knockout stage. The joyous and colourful crowds in Brazil are a saving grace, but even they have their work cut out.

The style of Brazil's 1982 team - much loved at home and abroad despite not winning the tournament - has given way to a win-at-all-costs mentality typified by Maradona's handiwork four years later.

Robben's deceptions epitomise the times, but so do the relentless bad tackles which are often followed by choirboy looks and gesticulations of innocence from the perpetrators.

Players also simulate outrage, urging referees to wave cards at opponents who they falsely claim have simulated dives.

Yet we are told the game needs protecting from Robben, when he often needs protection himself.

Now that Neymar is gone, Robben and the better-regarded Messi are the men most capable of lifting this World Cup out of the knockout trenches and back into the brightness of the Brazilian sunlight. Yet Robben's reputation will, apparently, be more difficult to raise.