Stekelenburg aims high
Filling the gloves vacated by Edwin van der Sar, the goalkeeper who amassed no fewer than 130 caps for the Oranje and played a further 226 times for Ajax, was never going to be an easy task. Maarten Stekelenburg has taken up this challenge however and is continuing a proud tradition of Dutch kepers who serve club and country with distinction.
Stekelenburg, born in Haarlem, was spotted playing for VV Schoten at the age of 15 and snapped up by Ajax's youth team. He soon made a name for himself, playing in the reserve side that took the legendary Amsterdam outfit all the way to the Dutch cup semi-final in 2002.
His debut with the first team also came that season on 24 February 2002, when he starred in a 1-0 win over NAC Breda aged only 19. He was called upon on various occasions over the next few years without ever managing to make the No1 jersey his own, but by the 2005/06 season he had become a regular fixture, and has only ever relinquished his post since then due to injury.
Stekelenburg has twice won the Cup with Ajax and since Van der Sar's international retirement, the 1.94m keeper has been an automatic choice for national team coach Bert van Marwijk.
Ajax's last league title came some five years ago, before the 26-year-old was established in the starting XI, but he is looking to set the record straight this season. "We've been preparing very well, and I can hardly wait for the new season to begin. We want to win the league," the keeper explained to FIFA.com a few days before the new term began.
The record Eredivisie champions, who have won no fewer than 29 titles to date, begin their campaign with a trip to FC Groningen, with new coach Martin Jol looking to get them back on the right track. The former Tottenham manager is very much relying on Stekelenburg, who has already amassed some 154 appearances for the club.
Stekelenburg sees the club's transfer policy as the reason for the lack of success in recent years. "It's tough to say why Ajax haven't won the Dutch league since 2004," he speculated. "Perhaps it's down to some of the top-quality players we have lost over recent years."
"I personally want to win the title with Ajax this year, first and foremost. And once the season is over, there is the World Cup 2010 with the international team," said the custodian. To maintain his place in the Dutch team for South Africa 2010, Stekelenburg will have to continue to excel at club level, something that was not always possible last season due to injuries.
Under the aegis of a new coach who last season steered Hamburg into Europe and also made the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, Stekelenburg has set himself clear international targets. "We want to qualify for the UEFA Europa League," said the man who was in the Dutch squad for Germany 2006. "That is our first major goal of the season."
The custodian has nothing but praise for Van der Sar, his predecessor for the Netherlands and Ajax. After the Manchester United keeper announced his international retirement, Stekelenburg has become the undisputed number one Van Marwijk's eyes, earning 20 caps along the way. "I think that Edwin is the best keeper that the Dutch have ever had. I'm just trying to do my best to catch up," said a modest Stekelenburg.
In terms of the FIFA World Cup in South Africa, he also has clear goals for himself and his team-mates. "We've achieved our first main objective by qualifying for South Africa," the Oranje's No1said. "We've booked our World Cup ticket and now we've got to take the next step. We want to have a successful tournament there and go on to win the title."