Maarten Stekelenburg is Ajax Cape Town’s new coach. After more than 20 years as a youth coach, an opportunity arose for him to take a step in a new direction. “If I’m ever going to make the move to being a head coach, now’s the time”, says the 38 year old native of Amsterdam.
Stekelenburg played for many years in the top Dutch amateur teams Argon, Huizen and AFC. During this period, the then-CIOS student also coached youth teams. This is how the Ajax keeper’s namesake has built up coaching experience since we was sixteen years old. He came to Ajax in 1999, where he coached D2, C1, B1, Jong Ajax and Ajax B2, successively. In between, he was also the interim head of youth development for a short time. Ajax placed him as head of youth development at Ajax Cape Town for two and a half years, in 2009. After this summer, the plan had been for him to return to Amsterdam and spend two more years working in youth development. But things turned out differently.
A few months ago, Cape Town management approached him as a potential successor to Foppe de Haan. At that time, the family wanted to return to the Netherlands, and Cape Town moved on and continued their search. But the situation changed, and the family decided that they postpone their return to the Netherlands. When Ajax Cape Town’s general manager, George Comtis, heard this, the deal was soon made with the former head of youth development. “The world was on its head for a little while”, said Stekelenburg. “Head coach? I had never done that before, but if I was ever going to make the step to head coach, now’s the time to do it. That’s why it went quickly. We did want to return to the Netherlands; our personal things were already packed and in a container to be shipped. When I had the meeting last week with Cape Town management, I had to call the port to ask them to keep our things for another week.”
Everything came together, and the movers were able to retrieve the containers, and on Monday, Stekelenburg stood on the field as Ajax Cape Town’s head coach. “Many people around me have said that this was a logical next step. Of course, you look at it differently yourself. I hadn’t really thought about it very much, and it wasn’t really my aim to be a head coach. This is a great step in my career. But I don’t know if this is the start of a career for me as a head coach. I’ve learned not to look too far ahead, in the football world. Two months ago, I was going to return to Amsterdam to work with Ajax’s youth development program, and now I’m the head coach of one of the biggest clubs of South Africa.”
Given the team’s strong performance last season, outside expectations are high for Ajax Cape Town. Under Foppe de Haan’s leadership, the club narrowly missed out on winning the first national championship in its history. “Second place is an advantage”, says Stekelenburg, who isn’t afraid of the pressure awaiting him next season. “The players have made enormous progress with Foppe. But there’s also ‘learning to win’. They came very close and we can reap the benefits of that.”
They will also benefit from the aura that Foppe de Haan has given Ajax Cape Town. “He has been very important for football in all of South Africa”, says Stekelenburg, singing the praises of the Fries coach, whom he regularly assisted when assistant coach Jan Pruijn was absent. “He made a big impression here. In South Africa, they weren’t used to the kind of football we grew up with in the Netherlands. The players weren’t used to the way they were coached; the trust and attention he gave them. Ajax Cape Town is attractive for young players, who know that they could potentially transfer overseas from here. For now, we’ll continue with our current selection. I’ll let three youth players train with the team, and we’ll see how they do. After that, we’ll see how it goes.”
The new head coach looks forward to this new step in his career, for which he’s grateful. “I want to thank Ajax Amsterdam for giving me the opportunity to take this step, and for all of their support.”