Dutch keeper Stekelenburg earning raves
Maarten Stekelenburg never doubted he would be back in goal for the Netherlands, even when repeated injuries sidelined him and he was left out of the team by club side Ajax.
The Dutch goalkeeping crisis was so acute last year — with Stekelenburg on the Ajax bench and two other keepers injured — that coach Bert van Marwijk pleaded with Edwin van der Sar to return from retirement for a pair of World Cup qualifiers.
The Manchester United No. 1, Netherlands' most-capped player, turned him down and Stekelenburg's path back to Oranje was assured. Van Marwijk selected him for the qualifiers against Scotland and Macedonia and he repaid his coach's confidence by keeping clean sheets in both matches.
"I was not afraid I would not come back because I know what I can do and I think I've demonstrated that," Stekelenburg said. "But it was a tough year last year. Maybe mentally it was good for me."
The 27-year-old has now played 31 times for the Netherlands since making his debut as Van der Sar's deputy in September 2004.
Now he is looking forward to facing Brazil in Friday's World Cup quarter-finals after making two crucial saves to help the Netherlands beat Slovakia 2-1 in the round of 16.
"At a crucial stage Maarten Stekelenburg saved us," Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk said.
The crucial moment was the 67th minute, with the Netherlands defending a precarious 1-0 lead and the momentum of the match swinging toward Slovakia.
Buoyed by beating defending champion Italy 3-2 in its previous match, Slovakia poured forward in search of an equalizer.
In rapid succession, Stekelenburg tipped a powerful shot from Miroslav Stoch over the crossbar and then parried a close-range effort by Robert Vittek.
"Those two saves kept us in the match. They were two good shots," Stekelenburg said. "After that we regained the initiative."
Stekelenburg has only let in two goals in the Netherlands' four matches at the World Cup — both penalties.
Samuel Eto'o beat him in the 2-1 win over Cameroon when the Dutch already were qualified for the next round, and Vittek scored a consolation penalty for Slovakia with the last kick of the match after Stekelenburg had brought down substitute Martin Jakubko.
The foul momentarily put Stekelenburg's place in the quarter-final in doubt as referee Alberto Undiano reached into his pocket for a card that turned out to be yellow instead of red.
Stekelenburg said he was not afraid he would be sent off for bringing down a player who had broken through to shoot.
"He was running toward the sideline and I think there was a defender on the goal-line," he said. "But you never know."