Stekelenburg’s ‘long and beautiful journey’ is over: ‘Get out of soccer for a while’
Just as the ball stuck to his hands, Maarten Stekelenburg’s name will forever stick to the match between the Netherlands and Brazil at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
The Dutch goalkeeper gracefully tapped a distance shot from Brazilian celebrity Kaká out of the goal. And that too at a crucial moment: he prevented a 2-0 deficit in the game in which the Dutch threatened to be overrun.
We all had to say “thank you” to Maarten Stekelenburg in that quarterfinal. Those were not exaggerated words, because the goalkeeper had an important part in reaching the final. Brazil was defeated 2-1 and then in the semifinals Uruguay 3-2.
Stekelenburg became the second Dutch goalkeeper after Jan Jongbloed to play a World Cup final. An honor still reserved only for those two goalkeepers.
Farewell in Arena
Ajax’s now 40-year-old third goalkeeper is hanging up his gloves after this season. He said goodbye to the crowd in Amsterdam on Sunday. “Yes, it’s special. Going to the Arena for the last time. It fell harder than expected. You knew this day would come, but it was still emotional.”
Stekelenburg says goodbye to Ajax crowd: ‘Long and beautiful journey has been’
Stekelenburg characterizes saying goodbye as “difficult.” Nevertheless, he also enjoyed it. “The most beautiful moment was after the warm-up when I saw my wife and children standing there,” Stekelenburg said. To soberly add a moment later that everything comes to an end.
The goalkeeper, who played his last official game a year ago, says he had already decided to quit in the winter. Especially “the aches and pains” he has been suffering with were leading in his decision.
Because the 63-time international tied the knot some time ago, there was room for reminiscing. “You look back from time to time with friends and family. Then you do feel it was a long and beautiful journey.”
That journey as a professional soccer player began in August 2002. Then Ajax coach Ronald Koeman drafted the young goalkeeper into the match against PSV for the Johan Cruijff Schaal. The game was won 3-1 and Stekelenburg immediately captured an award in his first match.
Stekelenburg’s greatest save at World Cup 2010: ‘All say thank you’
Many matches, prizes and clubs came on his resume. Stekelenburg remained in Amsterdam service until 2011 before moving to AS Roma. There he kept a regular goalie, but did not leave an indelible impression.
Two years later he went to Fulham. Until then, a parallel could be drawn with Edwin van der Sar, with whom Stekelenburg was often compared, much to his annoyance. Van der Sar also played at Ajax and Oranje, experienced difficult years in Italy and left for Fulham.
Where Van der Sar developed into one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Stekelenburg’s career stalled. He was mostly substitute goalkeeper from 2013. First at Fulham and then at Monaco, Southampton and Everton.
A brief revival followed after his return to Ajax in 2020. He became first goalkeeper and was the goalkeeper of Oranje at the European Championship in 2021. Then injuries threw a spanner in the works again.
So that is why the 2010 World Cup and that one save in particular stick with Dutch soccer followers. Stekelenburg admits that he is “to this day” confronted with that action. He doesn’t find that annoying at all. “It’s better to be remembered that way,” Stekelenburg says with a smile.
He doesn’t consider the 2010 World Cup the absolute highlight of his career. “It’s one of the highs, but also one of the lows,” referring to the lost final against Spain.
Stekelenburg says he finds it difficult to pick out one thing anyway. “My debut for Ajax, the 30th national title, I could go on and on.” At the bottom, pride prevails, says the Haarlem native.
With his current coach, John Heitinga, Stekelenburg has a long association. For example, they played with each other at Ajax and during the 2010 World Cup. Yet that is not the first thing Heitinga thinks of: “When I think of Maarten, I go back to youth. Then I think of the youth tournaments in Italy.”
Stekelenburg’s contemporary and former defender calls the goalkeeper a “stoic and social boy.” “A peace of mind. That’s nice for a central defender.”
According to Heitinga, Stekelenburg has impressed him as a goalkeeper, a fellow player and a human being. “He is an example for the young generation. The door at Ajax is always open for him.”
Out of soccer for a while
Still, it remains to be seen whether Stekelenburg will take advantage of that. “I’m looking forward to the next phase. I step out of soccer for a while. Experience what that’s like. After that, we’ll see what happens next.”
Moments later, Stekelenburg belies his own words. For disappearing from the fields altogether, he is not going to. “My kids play soccer on Saturdays. I want to go watch that. Those are things I really look forward to.