Van de Donk: We're no longer afraid of anything

  • The Netherlands are preparing for their Olympic debut

  • Danielle van de Donk talks about the team’s evolution since the France 2019 Final

  • She says the Dutch are “ready for the pressure”

Danielle van de Donk is hoping she won’t be playing a match on her 30th birthday this year. That’s not because it would ruin any grandiose parties she has planned, but because the bronze-medal match of the Women’s Olympic Football Tournament Tokyo 2020 happens to land on that day.

Instead, she will be hoping that she and her Netherlands team-mates are preparing for a gold-medal match. And that’s not an unrealistic expectation for a country that are the UEFA Women’s EURO holders and FIFA Women’s World Cup France 2019™ finalists. caught up with Van de Donk, who recently signed for Lyon after spending six years at Arsenal, to gauge the mood in the Oranje Leeuwinnen camp ahead of their debut at the Olympics.

BREDA, NETHERLANDS - NOVEMBER 27: Danielle van de Donk of Netherlands is challenged by Julie Ertz of USA during the International Friendly match between Netherlands Women and USA Women at Rat Verlegh Stadion on November 27, 2020 in Breda, Netherlands. Sporting stadiums around Netherlands remain under strict restrictions due to the Coronavirus Pandemic as Government social distancing laws prohibit fans inside venues resulting in games being played behind closed doors. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images) How would you describe the Dutch national team’s evolution since the France 2019 Final? Danielle van de Donk: We were so proud to be there in the Final. On the other hand, we knew we had to get better if we want to defeat the US. We want to play against all the top teams. We played quite well against all the countries after that period. We’ve analysed everything enough to improve on every detail of our game. We challenge each other a lot. The main thing was to get fitter, and I think we’ve done that quite well. We felt like we were so close [to winning], so we need to be willing to take one little step more.

What do you think is the greatest lesson that you learned from that Women’s World Cup that you and the core of the team will be applying in Tokyo? Not to be afraid of anyone or any team. That’s the main thing, because we weren’t really used to playing against the big names and countries. You look up to those people and now I hope it’s the other way around; that people look up to us because we’ve proven ourselves at the last couple of tournaments. I was always a little bit – not afraid exactly – but it was always in the back of my head that, I’m going up against Fischer from Sweden for example. I don’t have that anymore. I look forward to playing against the best players because they made me better. I do really think Sarina [Wiegman] created that for us, so I’m really grateful for her teaching us that. 

How do you think the team will deal with the pressure that comes with now being perceived as one of the favourites? I don’t really know, but people in the Netherlands are always quite direct. For example, we recently lost against Italy. We knew it wasn’t good enough. The media made sure that we knew it wasn’t good enough, so we’re ready for the pressure and the criticism. We all think it makes us better, so we’re not afraid of anything. We like when people are more direct, so we can learn from it.

Do you see yourself as a leader on the team now? And if so, what kind are you? I do see myself as a leader. On the pitch I’m the one who knows when the game has to be a bit more calm, so I try to keep the ball, make everything easy and try to be very positive. Otherwise, when we need a bit of feistiness or a tackle then I’ll make sure I do that (laughs). Off the pitch I just like when a team’s connecting and everyone feels good. They have a person to come to and talk to. I don’t want there to be any bridges between young and old players. I want everyone to feel valued and as equals.  

Along with yourselves, USA will obviously be considered one of the favourites for gold. How do you defeat them? What will it take? I’d normally leave that to the manager! (laughs) You have to be very patient with them. The US are known for being so, so fit. They can run for days. When we try to play our positional game and the good football that we can play, then I think we can beat them. You just really need to win your battles against them and believe in yourself. 

You seem to be a competitive person and player by nature. Do you see that as an essential part of your game? I think everyone is at this level but they have different ways of showing it. I wouldn’t have made it to this level without being competitive. I can be quite emotional and a bit feisty sometimes. 

Is that feistiness something you’ve had to learn to hone in a bit and channel in the right ways? I think that comes when you get older. I don’t think I ever looked at games and thought, ‘Oh, I crossed the line there’. I like to run out at the central defender or the goalkeeper, which takes a lot of energy, but I used to not see it as taking a lot of energy, but when you get older you start realising when it’s pointless to go and press. I’ll still do it, but I’ll know sometimes you can just get a throw-in from it or something. When you know yourself a bit more you can get your emotions and competitiveness in control. 

In terms of your Group F opponents in Zambia, Brazil and China PR, what is your early analysis of each of those teams and matches? They are all such different types of teams and represent different kinds of challenges. We can prepare for it, which is a big thing. I just look forward to them and to showing that we can match up against physical play and possession-based play. 

You’re going to be an Olympian for the first time. First of all, how does that sound to you?  Crazy, to be fair! It’s very nice to have on your resume (laughs)! As an athlete, it’s just amazing. I really look forward to it. I always want to win trophies and tournaments and play in big stadiums, and we just hope that we can make the Netherlands proud.

What are your memories of the Olympics growing up and who were some of your Olympic heroes? That’s a hard question, because when I was younger I was always outside playing football. When I was inside, I would always have sports on, usually football, so I was always watching it. I really like the sprints. I think it’s ridiculous, because all I can think about is how much they train on just sprinting. I don’t know how they do it!

Lastly, you were brought up in the small town of Valkenswaard. How did growing up there help develop you and make you the player and person you are today? Those were the best times. I really liked it there and felt really appreciated as well. I was in between two teams all the time. On one, I was the oldest and the captain. And in the next year I was with the older ones and I was just that little s***, really. But they all appreciated me and stuck by me and believed in me, because it was quite unnatural to have a girl in a boys team. Sometimes the opponent would make derogatory remarks about it, but the boys on my team would say, ‘Just wait’. After the games they were quite respectful and would say, ‘Oh, yeah you’re actually really good and I liked playing against you’. That was actually quite nice and I knew I had their respect and that was the main thing.