Think the Netherlands, think the FIFA World Cup™, and the mind immediately wanders to total football, the Cruyff turn and Dennis Bergkamp's goal at France 1998. A sturdy, miserly defence? That would rank some way down the list.
Yet if there has been one key factor in the current side's success, both during qualifying and here in South Africa, it has not been the dazzling skills of players such as Arjen Robben, Wesley Sneijder and Robin van Persie. These gifted attacking stars still hog the headlines, of course, but Bert van Mariwijk’s Dutch are a side that has been built from the back. The numbers tell the story. Of the 32 teams represented in South Africa, it is the Netherlands who conceded fewest goals during qualifying. Nor have many of their rivals been able to match them at the tournament proper, where the Oranje goal is still to be breached from open play.
For Maarten Stekelenburg, the team’s last line of defence, these statistics are a source of considerable pride. Yet although the Netherlands No1 has been faultless throughout his side's campaign thus far, he is anxious to share the credit for this laudable defensive record – and not merely with those immediately ahead of him. As the Ajax keeper told FIFA.com: “We have been very strong defensively and I think that has become an important element of this team. We conceded just two goals during qualifying, and one of those was a penalty, so I think we have shown everyone how strong we are as a unit.
Our target? To reach the final, and win the cup. If we didn't believe we could achieve that, we would have been better staying at home.
"I have to say too that it's not only myself and the defenders who deserve credit, but the midfielders too. [Mark] Van Bommel is an especially vital guy for us in terms of defending. Maybe that side of the game not what Holland is famous for, but I think that you build any good team from the base of a good defence. If you don't concede goals, you don't lose matches. And with the players we have at the other end of the pitch, we're always confident that we'll be able to score."
An impressive group campaign has certainly left the Netherlands with ample cause for self-satisfaction. However, with complacency and arguably even arrogance having contributed to their downfall at previous editions, it will reassure Dutch fans to learn that, if their goalkeeper is anything to go by, the class of 2010 are on a quest for perfection. "We've played three, we've won three – you can't ask for much more than that," reflected Stekelenburg. "But for me, our last performance [against Cameroon] was not good enough, so we will need to raise our level for the last 16. Personally, I was very disappointed to concede a goal. You always want to keep clean sheets, and I didn't see a goal coming. But I have no complaints about the ref giving the penalty, and [Samuel] Eto'o definitely took it well."
Though irked by aspects of their final group encounter, Stekelenburg is clearly savouring every second of the Netherlands' South African adventure. And having spent his entire international career prior to this tournament in the sizeable shadow of Edwin van der Sar, the 27-year-old has no intentions of wasting the chance to excel on the biggest stage of all. "I've been with Edwin at EURO 2008 and at the last World Cup, and it was a great experience," he said. "As I've said before, he's the best keeper our country has ever had. But now it's my turn. I'm loving being here as my country's No1 – it's the highest level you can play at, and I'm enjoying it every time I step out there."
The question now, with a Round of 16 match against Slovakia looming, is how many more opportunities Stekelenburg will get to step out on South African soil in the coming weeks. Evidently, setting modest targets to avoid disappointment is not the Dutch way. "Our target? To reach the final, and win the cup," was his unhesitant response. "If we didn't believe we could achieve that, we would have been better staying at home."