Edwin van der Sar: Keeper seeking to extend his club playing career

The Van Basten revolution has youth at its heart. But he is depending on one old Dutch master. Jason Burt meets a familiar figure
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Edwin van der Sar will retire from international football after next summer's World Cup to prolong his playing career at Manchester United. The Dutch goalkeeper - and captain - has just turned 35, and admits that the demands of playing at Old Trafford are too great for him to carry on with his country.

"You can play to a certain age," Van der Sar says. "But it's nice to get some rest also. The experience I have now got with Manchester, and how many games you play, you don't get that many days off during the season. The most time players get off is during the international breaks. Maybe I can prolong my period with the club by quitting the national team."

His period with the club could, of course, have been prolonged further had Sir Alex Ferguson followed up his gut instinct and moved for Van der Sar after Peter Schmeichel's departure following the European Cup win back in 1999. Instead, Ferguson let Van der Sar make his ill-fated move to Italy, and Juventus.

United ended up working their way through eight goalkeepers - from Fabien Barthez to Tim Howard - and £18.5m, only for each to fail to fill the void left by the imposing Dane. Finally the club returned to their first 6ft 5in and apparently unflappable target last summer.

As he sits in the restaurant at the impressive Grand Hotel Huis ter Duin in Noordwijk, the beach resort 30km from Amsterdam chosen as their base by the Dutch national team as they prepared for last night's friendly against Italy, Van der Sar is a courteous, if measured figure. He makes it clear that the topic of how things are at United is not one on which he wants to dwell, using the not unreasonable fact that he is on international duty to deflect my questions.

It has none the less been a rocky time at United, from disappointing results to Roy Keane's rants. Van der Sar is certain in his conviction that "I know I'm a good goalkeeper", but his form has suffered a little of late after a hugely reassuring start. Not that his confidence has dipped, and it allowed him to admit he was at fault for Gaizka Mendieta's long-range goal which started the rout at Middlesbrough, only to follow that up with an impressive display in the victory over Chelsea.

But it is his maturity and experience as well that Holland and United are benefiting from. "In 12 years you go through the team and go from here," says Van der Sar, pointing at the ground, "to here," pointing up. "And I don't want to say you gain more importance, but you are more experienced and you can show players things or talk about things. Things you didn't think about when you were 23."

Van der Sar is the most experienced player for club and country. In European competition he was winning the Uefa Cup with Ajax as long ago as 1992, and followed that three years later with the European Cup, beating Milan, before losing in the final the year after. He also has a European Super Cup medal. At United, only Sir Alex Ferguson can match those achievements.

For Holland, that experience is a little more bitter. He has been a losing semi-finalist in major competitions three times - in the 1998 World Cup and the European Championships of 2000 and 2004. It is what happened five years ago, against the Italians, that hurts the most. The Dutch went out on penalties, scoring just once.

"That game hurt us very much," says Van der Sar. "We played 11 against 10 and missed so many penalties. It's going to take more than a friendly, half a year before the World Cup. Maybe it would take a semi-final or even a final to do that, to erase that painful memory from 2000."

Van der Sar also dismisses any notion that he is also on some revenge mission for the two years he spent at Juventus, where he was displaced by Gianluigi Buffon. "I'm always quite rational," he says. "It didn't work out but I felt going there was the right choice for me at the time."

From Turin he went to Fulham, of course, making his debut, in August 2001, against United. Again, after the glories of Ajax, it was not the greatest period of his career. But then Van der Sar, who spent longer in amateur football than most Dutch players, appearing for the village of Nordweig until he was 18, has always had a great sense of equilibrium.

Qualifying for next year's tournament has, however, helped expunge the memory of missing out last time round when the Dutch lost the most tumultuous of matches to the Republic of Ireland, failing to reach the play-offs. "For everyone the World Cup is important," he says. "It doesn't matter if you are 21, going for your first one, or 35, and going for your third one. It's the biggest stage you can play on and every opportunity to experience it is something special. I know that in my heart because three years ago we missed it and you know what a shitty summer you have if you see a lot of your colleagues playing in it.

"We had a lot of criticism for missing the World Cup, and rightly so. And now with a big change in players, a lot of young players, we've achieved our best qualification so far. Hopefully, in eight months' time, if the younger players have matured a little bit more and gain more experience, we can try and achieve more than we did in '98."

There has been a revolution in Dutch football, with the appointment last year of Marco van Basten as the national coach. He, remarkably, was given the job, following Dick Advocaat's sorry exit, after just one year coaching the reserves at Ajax.

"The effect he has had on the national team has been quite strong," says Van der Sar, who was made captain by the legendary striker. He is also the only Dutch player to have faced Van Basten (when the Under-21s played the full national team in a practice match, Van Basten scoring). "He has his personality of course, as a big football player," he adds, "and the way he talks about football and explains how he wants to play."

Van Basten, who has a certain presence, also appears to have a laid-back style. Van der Sar says he has only seen him lose his temper once - when Holland were drawing at half-time away to Armenia. They eventually won. But his relaxed approach is deceptive. Not only is Van Basten meticulous - he is a disciple of video analysis - but he has also been ruthless in his rebuilding. "He has done his own thing," says Van der Sar. "A couple of players didn't want to play for the national team any more so they quit. Other players weren't selected and he got some young players in and they did very well. So maybe some of those who weren't selected think they can still play, and this means the young players are thinking, 'OK, I have to make sure that doesn't happen'."

The age of the squad has been dramatically reduced as names such as Clarence Seedorf, Patrick Kluivert, Jaap Stam and, more recently, Edgar Davids and Roy Makaay have gone. Enter relative unknowns like Joris Mathijsen and Denny Landzaat from less fashionable AZ Alkmaar.

Van der Sar admits there is a concern that maybe the squad is too inexperienced. "Yes, that's what I've been saying all along," he explains. "We are not as good as two years ago or even four years ago when we missed out on qualification for the World Cup. At that time we had a better team, better players." But there is a crucial difference for the Oranje, so traditionally riven by factions. "So far, this squad connects better than four years ago," says Van der Sar.

Luck has played its part - Van Basten admits that - with the goalkeeper also producing crucial saves in the opening tie against Holland's traditional nemesis, the Czech Republic, to set the tone. "It's just a question of a lot of things falling together," says Van der Sar. "That didn't happen four years ago but has happened now."

The main challengers next summer, he feels, will be Brazil and Argentina, while there is sympathy for the country where he plies his trade. "Everything gets so hyped up in England," he says. "Hopefully it will be more relaxed for their players to grow into the tournament. They have a heavy burden every time, trying to repeat the '66 result."

The burden on the Dutch is not much lighter. Van der Sar says he "just hopes something nice" comes from the World Cup. For him, there will be the personal achievement of surpassing Frank de Boer's Dutch record of 112 caps (last night's was his 106th). But for a goalkeeper only interested in "the team", it is what happens to Holland - and Manchester United - that counts.

LIFE & TIMES

BORN: 29 October 1970, Voorhout, Holland.

VITAL STATS: 6ft 5in, 13st 6lb.

CLUB CAREER: A graduate of Ajax's prolific youth system in 1988, he spent 11 years with the Dutch club, winning the Uefa Cup in 1992 and Champions' League in 1995. Made his big move as the first non-Italian goalkeeper at Juventus in 1999. Fulham's record signing (£5m) in 2001, joined Manchester United in 2005.

INTERNATIONAL CAREER: Made Holland debut in 1995 against Belarus and is closing in on Frank de Boer's Dutch record of 112 caps, with 106. Was in goal for Holland's elimination on penalties from Euro 96, the World Cup in 1998 and Euro 2000.

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