AMSTERDAM: Netherlands goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg is set to play his second game of the European Championship on Thursday, at home against Austria in Amsterdam, as he continues a fairytale comeback at the highest level.
Stekelenburg, who won his first cap in 2004, was the goalkeeper when the Dutch reached the 2010 World Cup final but had not been called up by his country since November 2016 before returning to the squad in March.
"If someone said before this season that I would be the first choice goalkeeper at the European Championship, I would have laughed at him," said the 38-year-old, who was released by Everton at the end of last season.
Stekelenburg's return had an element of good fortune about it. He was signed by Ajax Amsterdam last June on a one-year contract as cover for Andre Onana but when the Cameroonian received a drugs ban in February, Stekelenburg played his first league game in almost four years, after appearing only 14 times for Everton between November 2016 and the end of last season.
"It was horrible what happened to Andre and Ajax but my role at the club was clear, to be ready whenever Ajax would call upon me," he said.
But to be in the Dutch squad again was just a bonus, he added, until another slice of fortune when Jasper Cillessen tested positive for the COVID-19 virus and was left out of the tournament.
Even then, it was expected long-standing No. 2 Tim Krul would play for the Netherlands at Euro 2020 but coach Frank de Boer picked Stekelenburg for Sunday’s dramatic 3-2 victory over Ukraine in Amsterdam in their Group C opener.
"A few days before the match against Ukraine, we goalkeepers met the coach. There we heard how he was going to do it. Did I already assume that I’d be first choice? No, I think all three keepers left a good impression in training. Then it's up to the coach. But I am happy with it," Stekelenburg told a news conference.
"I've had a great season at Ajax. I see this as a kind of reward."
Stekelenburg is the oldest player at Euro 2020 - he turns 39 in September - and beat Edwin van der Sar’s record as the oldest Dutch player at a European Championship.
"I find that nice but not more than that," he added.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town; Editing by Ed Osmond)