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Mar 22, 2011

The making of Maarten

It was 16.31 CET on July 2, Brazil were 1-0 up and Netherlands thought that their 2010 World Cup campaign was over. Moments before kick-off in the quarter-final, Dutch coach Bert van Marwijk was forced to replace one of their most dependable central defenders, Joris Mathijsen, with a 35-year-old, clubless journeyman in Andre Ooijer and, less than 11 minutes into the game, the seemingly invincible five-time winners from South America strolled into the lead; a hapless back-four seemed on a hiding to nothing.

The sound of clocks chiming for half-past four still echoed around Dutch living rooms, when Brazil's most technical and creative midfielder Kaka delicately hit the ball from the edge of the area, his curling effort destined for the top corner. With a 2-0 score, there would have been no way back against the formidable Selecao.

While most Dutch fans contemplated the inevitability of a quarter-final exit - as they had been since the draw the previous December - and wondered how foolish they had been in believing this team were capable of beating the nation that had ended their World Cup dream in two previous finals, a body suddenly came flying into view. It was that of goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg: There to answer the SOS.

The participation of the 6' 5'', long-time understudy to Edwin van der Sar had been in question before the tournament, thanks to another late clamour to convince Manchester United's No. 1 to return to the national team. Stekelenburg had two years earlier spent some agonising months on the Ajax bench after coach Marco van Basten dropped him in favour of Kenneth Vermeer and only an injury to Vermeer had put him back in the Ajax goal at the start of the 2009-10 season.

Just one man had kept confidence in the giant keeper during the dark end to his 2008-09 campaign. Despite playing only once for his club in the final ten games, Stekelenburg kept his place in the Dutch national team. Van Marwijk never flinched, not even during a crucial international week against Scotland and Macedonia. Stekelenburg remained his No. 1 and repaid his coach's faith with two clean sheets in the spring of 2009.

Fifteen months later he produced another, more notable performance. On an amazing afternoon in Port Elizabeth, he managed to turn Kaka's curling shot past the post and, in doing so, transformed the morale of the Dutch team. Van Marwijk's side suddenly recognised that the game was not over and the rest, thanks to a Wesley Sneijder brace, is history.

That memorable save, coupled with a generally superb World Cup in South Africa, has seen the Haarlem-born stopper win over the doubters and become the undisputed Dutch No. 1. Stekelenburg even managed to raise his game further this season, showing some remarkable style in the Champions League, especially against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu. Los Blancos may have run uninhibited through the weak Ajax defence, but time and again their attacks ended with one of Stekelenburg's body parts diverting the ball to safety. As if he was not busy enough in the game, Stekelenburg also was also ranked second in his team's passing statistics and the Ajax keeper probably felt right there that his future in club football would lie elsewhere.

Until this season, rumours about him succeeding Van der Sar at Manchester United seemed to be based on his comparable height and club history, as if Sir Alex Ferguson were looking for Edwin's younger brother. Today, though, Stekelenburg has established a reputation as one of the best goalkeepers in Europe and a move to the Premier League appears to have more veracity. The 28-year-old is prepared to leave Holland for England and Ajax know that they have to cash in now as his contract is up at the end of next season.

However, Stekelenburg's stock will remain static for the next two months after he broke his thumb in training last week. The impact on Ajax was immediate; with Kenneth Vermeer out injured again, Frank de Boer had to turn to Jeroen Verhoeven, who was signed after a good Eredivisie season with Volendam in 2009. While he is a solid goalkeeper, Verhoeven has the somewhat rotund physique of the legendary Piet Schrijvers, weighing close to 100kg, and is regularly ridiculed for it from the stands.

Put simply, he cannot compare to Stekelenburg, which means that defensive errors will be less frequently repaired with a spectacular save. This notion of the need to step up a gear has not yet sunk in, in the minds of the Ajax outfield players. Willem II were not strong enough to benefit last week, but Spartak Moscow and ADO Den Haag duly did. These two defeats dealt a premature blow to Ajax's chances of silverware and maybe even Champions League qualification for the ambitious club from Amsterdam.

Van Marwijk will hope that the backline in the Dutch team won't make the same mistake. The coach has a decent back-up in Michel Vorm of FC Utrecht, who impressed when keeping a clean sheet against Scotland in September 2009 and has picked up some valuable experience in the Europa League this season. He'll be keeping goal in the upcoming double header with Hungary next weekend but, while his inclusion gave Van Marwijk no sleepless nights, the choice for the reserves was a real brain twister.

Piet Velthuizen used to be third in line, but his move from Vitesse to Hercules Alicante at the start of the season has turned pear-shaped with him mainly stuck on the bench there. Sander Boschker went along to the World Cup, but has now been surpassed by Nikolay Mihaylov at FC Twente and, at 40 years old, is not a long-term solution. Most Eredivisie clubs have foreigners in between the sticks, so Van Marwijk has resorted to Jelle ten Rouwelaar of NAC Breda, who has been known to collapse under pressure and whose form ranges between the sublime and the ridiculous. The only other prospects, Vitesse's Elroy Room and NEC's highly talented Jesper Cillesen, have yet to finish their first regular season in the league and have no international experience.

But at least Dutch football has produced another world-class goalkeeper, in Stekelenburg, to follow in the footsteps of Jan van Beveren and Edwin van der Sar. He could certainly be a mainstay in the Netherlands team for the next decade and a transfer to the Premier League could be the definitive next step in his progression - whether that is at Manchester United or another side should be made clear in the summer.

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