Five years is a long time by anyone’s standards; a lot can happen in that time and as a person you can experience so much. For Dutch playmaker Danielle van de Donk, that marker is now well and truly in sight at Arsenal, having joined the club as a 23-year old back in November 2015. And it’s been quite the journey – but it’s far from being over yet.

Working through her rehabilitation from injury whilst in isolation during what is an unprecedented time for all players, van de Donk spoke with us about her time with the club to date and her development both as a person and as a player during that time. Whether it’s studying for her degree or performing on the pitch, she’s a person that gives her all, and our conversation covered all bases, touching on her international achievements and aspirations as well as looking at her beginnings in the game.

Going back a few weeks then when the club tells you you need to head into isolation, what happened at that stage and did you realise everything would need to be put on hold?

So I was going through rehabilitation programme because I had just injured my ankle while on duty with the national team. This meant it was a bit different for us as rehab players as we were allowed in a little bit at Arsenal for maybe around two weeks longer than the rest of the girls. I’ve actually had a great start to my recovery but we’ve just had to go day by day since then as one day, going in and training just wasn’t possible anymore. I wouldn’t say that panicked me but the whole situation, it being so new to everyone, what we’re going through is so weird for everyone. We’re all trying to make the most out of it and the staff have been incredible in getting us the right equipment for when we’re at home. They did so well to get everyone a watt bike and gym stuff for us to work out at home. With my ankle I can’t really do anything more than just a bike session and some rehab exercises. So for me, it’s not too bad so far but it’s just a very weird situation. 

It’s got to be a real mental challenge to go through something like this while trying to recover from an injury. Did you fear this would put a halt to your rehab?

I was a bit scared. I’m still a little bit anxious because being at home I obviously don’t have the same top facilities as I would when going in to train at Arsenal. I’m just in my apartment with a watt bike and gym equipment. So I know that for my recovery it’s not the best situation but looking at the bigger picture. There are people out there who are sick and people are dying from this virus so I really can’t complain. It’s just a situation that you need to handle in your own way and put your mind to it because that is all you can do basically.

It’s all relative. If you have an injury, that is still a mental challenge whatever the circumstances. How have you found the last few weeks being isolated? What’s your general mindset on it all?

I have so many exercises that I have to do during the day, they tend to take around three hours so my days actually somehow go very very fast. I do my exercises then I’m allowed that one time to go outdoors to exercise so then I just go for a walk around the neighbourhood so once that’s done I can come in and by that time it’s already time to make dinner. So I haven’t found it too hard so far. I think that’s because we have that one time a day we can leave the house which helps a lot. That makes it so much better. I’m in St Albans so it’s not so busy which is good.

Did you think about going back to family in Holland to be back there through this?

My sister is pregnant at the moment and my dad is in the higher risk group so while it would have been nice, it is not worth the risk. They were all a little bit like “don’t bring the virus over here”, they basically didn’t want me in their house [laughs].

We all seem to be talking a lot more, whether that’s Zoom, TikTok or FaceTime, are you finding that?

Yeah it’s weird but quite nice. It’s a hard thing to find the right words but I’m enjoying feeling closer to everyone in that way even though we’re all separated. It’s weird but for me it feels like right now, the pressure is off. You can’t do your normal routine so you can just do your own thing -  do your rehab, your own training, go outside for a walk, have your dinner then FaceTime your friends and family. You all keep up to date and make sure you’re all doing well. It’s not like you have anything that needs to be done like prepare for a game. There’s no game this weekend or no midweek games, there’s no Champions League so while it’s all a weird situation, it takes the pressure off my shoulders.

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What would you say has surprised you about yourself during this time in isolation? Have you realised you can cook pretty well?

I’m very disciplined normally. Like I have to do my work out properly, I have to follow the plan and all the details. I’m very thorough usually but it is very hard to motivate yourself on some days in this situation as it can become the same thing over and over, especially through rehabilitation. I normally pride myself on how organised I am but I have definitely found it hard to have the same feeling while we’re going through this. It’s hard to do the same exercises all the time without knowing whether we’re actually going to be able to compete soon and whether or not the competition will go through. The Olympics has gone away so I found it difficult to deal with goals like that being taken away. In answer to your question… I don’t think I’m a good cook [laughs].

Have you taken up any hobbies to keep you busy? Have you started reading or anything like that?

I’m actually so close to graduating on my university course at the moment so I’m hoping I can do more on that online. I’d like to finish this study sometime soon and to do that I’d need to do it online. My school isn’t open any time soon and I can’t fly to The Netherlands. I’m trying very hard to graduate. So if I’m not doing my rehab, right now I’m studying.

What are you studying?

It’s a course at the Johan Cruyff academy. I’m studying Business, Economics, Sports Management and Sports Marketing. I’m a bit ashamed but I started the course eight years ago so I really need to finish this because the course should take four years normally. For every year,  I’ll take two years but it’s quite hard to do it from a different country when I’m travelling a lot and being a professional player at the same time who it trying to be the best at football.  I like it when I can get my mind focused on my studies like this period because usually my head is 24/7 football. I watch football all the time and I play football all the time. So my study is a bit of escapism for me.

You can be forgiven. You’re an elite athlete trying to compete a degree at the same time, that’s no easy task.

I hope so! [laughs].

Similarly, has this period of isolation made you realise there are things you can’t live without?

That’s a hard question. I think I find it pretty hard that I don’t have the option to see my friends or my team mates. I can’t fly back home and see my family. It’s not really a loneliness as I can FaceTime all the time but I’d say I miss my social life. I miss going out for coffee.

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What about not playing football regularly - is that almost like having something so fundamental to you taken away?

It’s actually so hard. It’s weird. I feel like I’m on my worst holiday ever. It’s just a bit unreal. For me because of my ankle I knew I wouldn’t be playing for two or three months anyway so my mind was already prepared for that but to not be able to go to the training ground every day and see all the girls, the manager and just to hang around with them, I really miss them at the moment. We all get sick of each other sometimes but I miss them all now.

It adds to the rollercoaster of being a football player to say the least. You go through so many highs and so many lows. Away from Covid-19…It’s now five years since you joined Arsenal, how would you describe those five years?

I think I learnt the most about myself in my first three years at Arsenal. It’s always a rollercoaster because I’ve played with so many players who I looked up to like Kelly Smith, Farah Williams, Alex Scott, Kasey Stoney - all these people who are big in the women’s game. They taught me so much. Now with the new manager, it’s an interesting dynamic for me because he wants everyone to feel free and do whatever on the pitch so long as you stick to his rules. He only has seven rules that are easy to hold on to so like never before, you feel so free. That’s amazing but hard at the same time because we grow up being taught and disciplined to play a certain way and to follow tactics. Usually we’re so particular as well when looking at mistakes but this manager says to us “you all see the game, you all know how to play, so go for it!”. That is something I have to learn and adapt to but it’s actually one of the best things I’ve experienced in my career so far. It’s kind of like, let my brain do the work and trust my feet to do it.

Would you say getting that sense of freedom has changed your style of play?

I actually think that I am one of those players who is better with freedom. I’m a number 10, I think this manager wanted to help me even more by adjusting my position. For example, he put me on the left wing but lets me know that he put me there with the freedom to move around. I’m not locked to that position during the game. If I find myself as a defender or a striker at one point in the game, so long as I’m doing my job, that is ok. At first, I struggled with that freedom as I felt like I would be getting in the way of others on the pitch but over time you adjust and I love it.

What about the club in that time? It’s always been a club that has lead the way in Women’s Football but how have things changed to a new level in the last five years?

Before I joined, the club was already very professional but that has continued more and more. You train on the same training ground as the men and the youth teams. You can’t complain about the facilities or the pitches - they are absolutely brilliant. You feel like you’re in such a luxurious environment and in the last couple of years they’ve also built a new gym. It was meant for the mens but we all use it and the facilities they have for the women, I really don’t think any other club has. I feel very lucky that I get to be myself at Arsenal and get to train with these top people at great facilities. I couldn’t wish for anything more.

When we look at your mentality and mindset – you at the club between the ages of 23 and 28 – a lot can happen in that time - How would you say you have changed as a person in that time?

I think I have gone from a rebel to a leader. As a 23 year old, new kid to the team, you can come in by doing whatever you want. I really wanted to show who I was and wasn’t really thinking about how good we can be as a team. I think that through the years, I’ve developed and changed in that time to realise it’s not just all about me and that the whole team can benefit when we’re playing together. I can’t do it without them. I’ve really learnt to appreciate those people around me and how I can make them better and how they can make me better. I think I’ve just become much more of a team player and I’m just trying to teach the young kids how they should do it. I like to take them under my wing and hope they feel good about themselves and part of the family.

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So you definitely like the idea of being a leader now as how many players might have been for you five years ago?

Yeah I feel that a lot of young players feel that need to prove themselves and they need to show who they are by running a lot and showing what they can do. That may be the case but I think it’s more important that they feel part of the team. Having that feeling of family will give them confidence to express themselves and evolve with time. Those young players coming through need someone they can trust and if they can look up to someone who is also nice to them then I think that breeds more confidence. That’s the role I like to fulfil. I don;’t think everyone is born to do a role like that but I feel like it’s one I enjoy.

What are the stand out highs and lows you’ve experienced in that time would you say?

I’d say it’s a hard one to answer emotionally as personally, I’ve been through a lot in that time. There’s been deaths in the family and illness. My grandma died and my sister has had troubles and when those things have happened, I haven’t always been able to go home as we’ve had something to play for. An FA Cup final or whatever - I mean, we’re Arsenal - we want to win all we can and we always make sure we play for them and get to the finals. Football is hard with that in mind because you have to make sacrifices that people often don’t see or when you family needs you most. That’s the nature of sport at the top of their game. You accept those things. It’s a challenge because when I need my family, they are all here for me but I can’t always return the favour. I think I find that the hardest part of football.

Quite often people may forget that football players are humans with feelings and emotions like anyone else.

Exactly. It’s just how it goes. It’s a lesson you learn.

On the flip side, what are the standout high points that have meant the most to you over the last few years?

I can’t even describe or choose one. I’d never been the champion of a league before I came to Arsenal. So winning the league and the championship was a huge thing for me. I genuinely thought I had a curse because I ended up second in the league so many times and it was my fault. I broke that curse by winning the championship.

What about the profile of the game. There’s a lot more investment, a lot more attention and a lot more general positivity towards the women’s game – what’s your experience of that been like?

I just think for me it’s a respect thing. The men get paid a ridiculous amount of money but it’s also the most interesting and entertaining sport to watch. It’s attractive to sponsor that and be involved in it for many companies so I do think they have all the right to have so much money going into that side of the game. However, I feel like the developments the women’s side is making, all of those things are coming across too. Whether that’s sponsors or general interest, you can see it all happening which is great both individually and for the team as well. It’s an improvement for sure. We’ve seen the FA make steps to ensure that players can live off what they are being paid and be able to afford to train every day and ultimately make it their career. That’s a huge development. I know so many girls who used to be studying, working and playing football all at the same time. If you take that weight off then it means the female players can fully focus on being elite athletes. It will raise the standards across both club and international levels.

Touching on the international side of things. There’s a lot of good happening in Holland in the women’s game, could you set the scene as to how it’s growing over there?

When the Euros was in the Netherlands in 2017, it was a huge success. From the group stages, it became very popular and the stadiums were full. We as the national team had never experienced this. We used to have trouble getting players to our games in little stadiums let alone big ones. It went from inviting schools and families and really trying to fill small stadiums with huge effort to being sold out in a minute during the Euros. It was such a great success because we wont the tournament but the greatest thing is that things didn’t stop there. Now the stadiums are nearly always full, people are genuine fans of both the teams and individual players so on every level we’ve seen it grow in a massive way. It’s the fastest growing sport in the Netherlands. All I see is the women’s game in the Netherlands being bigger and better.

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It’s a progressive nation. Things like giving the Lionesses badge bespoke treatment, the Dutch team were one of the first to do that sort of thing. Why do you think they’ve been so hot on getting things right, first?

I don’t really know but I just think we’ve earned a lot of respect from a lot of people. Firstly for playing the game the way we do but also by staying true to who we are because that’s what we are known for. With our FA in the Netherlands, they have appreciated what we’ve done and we all feel their respect as players. We really want equal rights and that is something the FA agreed with. They have made statement moves like that, that have a big impact nationally. It sends out the right message out across the whole country. I think women are being a lot more appreciated asa whole.

You’ve done a hell of a lot in your career. The accolades and the journey you’ve been on. Do you see yourself as a role model for many people out there?

I really hope I inspire people. I really hope I can inspire young people to go and play football but also to stay true to who they are. I don’t really notice it myself that much. I just go with the flow basically. I don’t treat anyone less than anyone else. I just think that is who I am and who I have always been. Just because I’ve played more minutes, more tournaments or won more trophies, it doesn’t make me any different to anyone else than a younger kid. It doesn’t make me more of a person than anyone else.

Looking back to when you were a kid, did you ever imagine getting to the heights you have?

It’s so weird but I remember when I was maybe six or seven, when it was your birthday at school, you’d have to stand on a chair while everyone sings for you. You’d have to tell everyone what you are going to be when you grow up and I would always say a “professional football player”. I didn’t know I was going to get this far or playing in big tournaments and win trophies or whatever but I always wanted it and I always aimed for it. So I would always put in the extra work and go for it as it’s what I wanted to do. I’ve always thought that if you know what you want to achieve then it’s up to you to go and get it.

Were there any hurdles or didn’t you every get any negative comments from people that said you couldn’t be a professional football player?

Not in my class room or at school. I always used to play football with boys until I was about sixteen. When we’d turn up for a game, I’d always hear comments from the opposite team that they were playing against a team with a girl. They’d be like “they’ve got a girl on the team, she can’t play football” and all that kind of stuff. You’d hear that all the time. That would only last one game though. After the game they’d always be like “oh yeah, ok, you can play football”.

The funny thing is, I was discussing this with my mum recently and she said to me “did you never notice that the parents were also like this?” Saying things like “why is there a girl on the boys team?”, it was just so old fashioned. I’m just so happy that this mentality has changed a little bit and is changing more.

Did hearing things like that drive you on and make you more hungry to prove people wrong?

To be fair the boys would always stick up for me. They’d just be like “you wait, you don’t have a chance”. The boys were all my best mates and they all had my back so I didn’t really have to say anything myself. I’d just let my feet speak and most of the time that would make the other team shut up.

Looking back now, you must be pretty proud of where you’ve come. Do you ever look back and reflect in that way?

Yeah, I think I will but after my career a bit more. Sometimes I need that reality check. My best mate often says that to me. Seeing things like a full stadium when we play for the national team means so much. That’s so sick and probably the best feeling that there is. But I just have so much more that I want to accomplish. I want to play at the Olympics. I want to be the best player in the world and stuff like that. I just always want to do so much more.

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How gutted were you when the Olympics were pushed back?

It did hurt. I’m 28 and I’m getting older. I just don’t want to get older basically [laughs]. It really hurts though because when I started my rehab, that was the goal I put at the end of it - to be fit for the Olympics and be even better prepared so I can go there and smash it. I can’t complain really when I’m healthy and I know peoples lives are at risk if the Olympics continued. As an athlete you can’t be that selfish when the world is in such a situation like this. You just need to accept it. I’m just happy it didn’t get cancelled and got postponed instead. It still means there’s hope for me to play at the Olympics.

At least it gives you that carrot to aim for once we’re through the other side of this. Do you think you’re going to be more hungry than ever to to win after this?

Probably, yeah. Though there are always new goals to aim for. The league will come with a huge focus and the Olympics will still be there. There’s going to be a new high for me, I know it.

Photography by SoccerBible.