It is not for nothing that Edwin van der Sar came to be known as the Netherlands' 'Papy'. After all, over a 14-year international career that spanned seven major championships and 128 caps, the Manchester United goalkeeper established a well-earned reputation as the Oranje's calm, reassuring father figure.
At 37, his goalkeeping instincts remain as sharp as ever, but it took some especially lavish praise from Marco van Basten during UEFA EURO 2008 to underline Van der Sar's wider worth to the Dutch team. "He is a guide, an advisor to the younger players, a confidant to others and my right hand man on the pitch," the former Netherlands coach said of his captain. "It is a blessing to have such a player in the team."
Yet when Van der Sar, as promised, called time on his international career following the European Championship, it seemed that his time in the spotlight had reached a natural, fulfilling conclusion. His 128-cap haul had made the 37-year-old the most decorated player in Dutch history and, in his final appearance, the Red Devils keeper equalled Lilian Thuram's record of 16 EURO outings.
Less than four months later, however, and Van der Sar is back. Yet his return to the Dutch squad is not so much an attempt to conclude any unfinished personal business, but rather Papy's paternal instincts once again coming to the fore.
It is, after all, in an emergency that the veteran former Ajax and Juventus keeper has rode to the rescue, answering Bert van Marwijk's SOS only after the Netherlands' first and second-choice keepers, Maarten Stekelenburg and Henk Timmer, were both ruled out the team's FIFA World Cup™ qualifiers through injury.
As Van Marwijk explained: "Together with Frank [de Boer, Netherlands assistant-coach], I called Edwin on Wednesday. . His return to the squad is only for these two matches and with a goalkeeper of his class he will start both matches."
He was shocked for a moment but also flattered and answered positively the same day
Van der Sar's readiness to answer his country's call merely serves to underline his devotion and patriotism, of course, and while playing against Iceland and Norway will take him to the 130-cap mark, he left no doubt where personal considerations figured in his thinking.
"I was really surprised when Van Marwijk contacted me," the Manchester United man confided to De Telegraaf. "And I had to discuss it with my wife, the rest of the family and with Sir Alex before making a decision. But I understood the difficulty of the situation with two injured goalkeepers and the importance of the two upcoming qualifiers for the Oranje. It still feels like my team, and they grabbed a good result in the away match against Macedonia (winning 2-1)."
Such are the lofty standards that he continues to set at Old Trafford, there is little doubt that the 37-year-old will prove a significant asset to the Dutch in this week's vital FIFA World Cup double-header. Yet it is typical of the man that, even as he steps back into the international spotlight, Van der Sar sought to use the opportunity to nurture and boost the confidence of his injured heir.
He said: "My comeback is only for the next two matches, because ."
Maarten [Stekelenburg] is a worthy successor. He just needs to play more international matches to gain more experience and improve even more
As for his own future outside the international arena, Van der Sar has not ruled out retiring at the end of this season, admitting that he will review his form and fitness in December. The smart money though, is on this golden oldie continuing to keep goal at the highest level while also maintaining the highest of standards off the park.
"I have said December because it is what I have done for the last two years and I feel comfortable with that," he said. "But I don't want to put a time-line on it or talk too much about it. As long as I enjoy it and my manager and team-mates are happy I am in the team, that is my main focus point."
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