By Mark Gleeson
(Reuters) - When the Netherlands squad assemble on Monday for the start of their World Cup qualifying campaign, goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg will be on hand and able to remind the players of a more successful era for the national team.
The 38-year-old is one of 24 players called up by coach Frank de Boer for this month's qualifying matches against Turkey, Latvia and Gibraltar, returning to the squad for the first time in five years in an unexpected twist late in his career.
Stekelenburg was the goalkeeper when the Dutch reached the 2010 World Cup final in Johannesburg. But the national team's fortunes dipped towards the end of the decade, highlighted by their failure to qualify for the last finals in Russia.
The return of Stekelenburg, who won the last of his 58 caps in November 2016, has 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 Ajax first-choice keeper was slapped with a two-year drugs ban in February, Stekelenberg returned to the line-up for his first league outing in almost four years, after playing 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 in an interview with Voetbal International magazine this week.
Now, within the space of two months, he is back in national team contention.
"Everything that is happening to me now is a bonus. A call-up just shows the opportunities that football can suddenly throw up."
"I have brought Maarten Stekelenburg into the group so that I can see him at work for 10 days," explained coach Frank de Boer, hinting the veteran now stood a chance of going to the European Championship in June.
"Now it is about World Cup qualification, but of course we look further than just this week."
Stekelenburg was De Boer's goalkeeper when Ajax won the Dutch league in 2011, before the goalkeeper moved to Roma. After that he played at Fulham, Southampton, Monaco and Everton, where after a bright first season he dropped to the reserve team.
The Netherlands kicks off the World Cup qualifying series in Istanbul, where Jasper Cillesen or Tim Krul are expected to be the first choice in goal for the Dutch.
But Stekelenburg might get a run against either Latvia in Amsterdam on March 27 or Gibraltar away on March 30, marking a fairytale return.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson; Editing by Hugh Lawson)