Ajax has had a majority stake in Ajax Cape Town in South Africa since 1999. In the ‘Message from Cape Town’ column, we focus on the African Ajax team each week. In this edition, we talk to Maarten Stekelenburg and look back on his years with Ajax Cape Town, which came to an abrupt end last week when he was told his services would no longer be required.
The dismissal came as a surprise for the 39 year old Stekelenburg. Naturally, he knew that the results weren’t good. Four points and sharing last place in the league are definitely not what he, or the club management, had expected beforehand.
“But I saw potential”, said the coach. “So the decision to not continue with me surprises me somewhat. Of course we were disappointed last year when we didn’t match our second place finish from 2010-2011, and ended in ninth place. We wanted to end in the top eight, because then you are eligible to play in the prestigious Top Eight tournament. During a meeting, we voiced that we stood behind our own philosophy. Everyone supported that. At the beginning of the season, we chose to go with many players from our own youth academy. They know the philosophy and playing style very well. We wouldn’t bring in too many players from outside. And after that, we’d build on the team.”
“Ajax Cape Town doesn’t have the biggest budget in the competition, but we train our players well so that they can reach competition level and compete for the prizes. We were clear about that, and this team has many qualities. I thought that we were all heading in the same direction, but apparently that wasn’t the case. But, as I’ve said before, we needed a win. Because then, the process starts to go faster.”
But Ajax Cape Town’s talented, young team didn’t manage to earn a single point in all of September. Stekelenburg: “When you win, you gain confidence, and for our way of playing, that’s very important. I can compare it a bit with Ajax Amsterdam’s match against Real Madrid. You need to play with confidence and guts. And when those things work, it looks good. I had also expected for us to be further than we are. I truly saw good things. If it doesn’t work in terms of performance, then you can do two things: throw your philosophy overboard, or continue to believe in it. We were going for the long term, without losing sight of the short term. I hope that there won’t be a complete turn- around at the club in which the short term will become the priority.”
Stekelenburg was Ajax Cape Town’s head coach for a year and a half, after wielding the scepter for 2,5 years over at the youth academy. He has no regrets about stepping over to the first team. “I’ve enjoyed myself and I learned a lot. I feel like we really achieved something at Ajax Cape Town. I have a bitter taste in my mouth about being fired, because I didn’t feel like I was done yet. You can sometimes feel like it’s slipping through your fingers, but it wasn’t like that for me. It was literally taken away from me, and that’s painful. I don’t think this will damage me because I have enough confidence in my own abilities. But it’s not difficult to imagine that I would have liked things to turn out differently.”
Fresh from his dismissal, Stekelenburg isn’t yet sure what the future will bring. He’s not under contract with Ajax Amsterdam and has no obligation to return to the ArenA or de Toekomst per se. “I’ve used this past week to rest, and starting now, we’re going to think about what we want. As a family, we are enjoying South Africa very much. But we also have a wonderful house back in the Netherlands. I’d like to obtain my professional football diploma.”