After excelling at last summer’s UEFA Women’s Euro, Dutch goalkeeper Daphne van Domselaar earned international acclaim and is now set to star in the Women’s Super League (WSL) having joined Aston Villa.
When regular number one Sari van Veenendaal injured her shoulder, during the Netherlands’ first match at the European Championship, the 22-year-old from North Holland was thrust into the international limelight, ultimately making the position her own. Taking that form forward into this summer’s Women’s World Cup, she once more earned plaudits for her performances and reflex saves, elected as Player of the Match after the Round of 16 victory over South Africa.
This month, van Domselaar became only the fourth different female goalkeeper – England’s Mary Earps later became the fifth – to be nominated for the prestigious Ballon D’Or, awarded to the best player in any position over the past twelve months. Only one goalkeeper in the 67-year history of the award, Lev Yashin of the Soviet Union in 1963, has ever claimed the prize.
“Actually I found out on Twitter (X),” she told me from her new home in Birmingham. “I got tagged in a picture. I looked at the picture and thought, ‘is it real?!’ Then I looked a bit deeper and then I found out it was from the Ballon D’Or. A little time later, the club came with the news to me. So in a weird way, I found out really quick.”
The first-ever female goalkeeper nominated for the Ballon d’Or was van Domselaar’s predecessor in the Dutch national team, Sari van Veenendaal, who the same year in 2019 became the first winner of the new FIFA award for The Best Women’s Goalkeeper.
Van Domselaar tells me that it is not her overriding ambition to follow in van Veenendaal’s footsteps. “Winning trophies as a team is way more important. It’s nice to receive such a big prize as an individual but after all you need a team with it to earn a prize like that. It’s not like my main priority to collect those awards but it’s like a nice thing to have too, next to prizes with the team.”
Chosen as one of the 30 best female players in the world by the judges of the Ballon D’Or, van Domselaar was surprisingly omitted from the list of seven goalkeepers selected to the shortlist for The Best FIFA Award for players in her specific position. Nevertheless, she is full of admiration for two of the custodians selected ahead of her in particular.
“I do like the play of (Sandra) Paños from Spain, the way they play football, I think she’s good with both the feet and the hands. I also do like Mary Earps and the way that she plays, she always shows at every major tournament that she is one of the best, in each game too in the league. I think both of them, more in the way they play and how they perform in each game. That’s massive.”
Next Tuesday, van Domselaar will take her place in goal for a UEFA Nations League match against the European champions England in Utrecht. The last time, the teams met in the Netherlands, a 17-year-old van Domselaar had just signed for the Dutch champions, FC Twente, the club from the town of Enschede where the two nations played each other in the semi-final of the previous European championship in 2017. The Netherlands were then coached by current England boss Sarina Wiegman who ultimately led her home nation to victory in that tournament.
Having just played at the u17 UEFA Women’s European championship in the Czech Republic, watching the senior Euro on home soil was to prove an eye-opening moment for the teenager. “I attended the semi-final and final in the stadium, so I was in the stands. I really enjoyed it. It was like a whole growth throughout the tournament with the people who watched the games. I think that the first game of the tournament (a 1-0 win over Norway) was the first women’s game in the Netherlands ever sold-out.”
“You saw from before that tournament, the younger girls who liked sports, but were not necessarily into football. After the tournament, I think a lot of girls played football from then. I really enjoyed watching them from the stands. I was really excited about that and was able to see those major players in front of me, in real life instead of on TV.”
“It was a good moment for the Netherlands too. I think from that moment, we got more attention from the press. Eventually, it led to bigger steps like equal pay, more attendance in the stadium. It was great.”
Van Domselaar herself was a comparatively late starter, not playing the game until she was 11. Initially an outfield player, she was soon drawn into playing in goal. “I think after two games, I went on goal. Growing up, I think Maarten Stekelenburg, the Dutch goalkeeper from the men’s side, I looked at him the most because I could only see the men’s league games, not the women’s games.”
Initially, the young van Domselaar had played volleyball but tells me she wasn’t sure if she was good enough to make it to the top of that sport. “I don’t know! Actually I’m quite small for a volleyball player. I just enjoyed it, but in the back of my mind, I knew I wanted to play football after all. At a certain moment, I just started to play football. I think I was pretty good at volleyball, not really good.”
Used to throwing herself around on the volleyball court, van Domselaar has developed a propensity and fearlessness for diving towards the ball which was served her well between the sticks as a goalkeeper. Her coach at FC Twente, Tommy Stroot, praised her instinctive nature while also suggesting there is much more van Domselaar can learn about the art of goalkeeping as she develops her game.
It is an assessment, she agrees with. “I think I’m an athletic person, I can do lots of sports. That’s in my favor. I think I have a good basis to grow from. I do a lot of things from my gut, so not really things I have been taught because I’ve only had real goalkeeper coaching from when I was 17 or 18, so pretty late, only after I joined FC Twente.”
At the UEFA Women’s Euro last summer, that athleticism and instinct helped van Domselaar make more saves at the tournament (23) than any other goalkeeper. The Netherlands ultimately went out of the in the quarter-final against France to a late penalty kick. It was a match in which van Domselaar reached new heights repelling everything the French, and in particular Wendie Renard, threw at her.
“It can be a good game, even if you lose,” she admits. “As a goalkeeper, you don’t have the ability to score. So you can hold every ball, but the team has to score. It was a good game for me. I think I grew throughout the tournament. At that moment, I felt like nobody is going to score in my goal. I think that’s one of my best games. One of my two best games for sure.”
After the Euro, van Domselaar might have expected van Veenendaal, the Dutch goalkeeper when the Netherlands won UEFA Women’s Euro 2017 and still only 32, to reclaim her position when she recovered from injury. However, days later, van Veenendaal shocked the world by announcing her immediate retirement from the game, a decision she claimed she had already made before the tournament. It was also news to van Domselaar, “I only think a few people knew that, so I just found out after the tournament.”
Top of the wanted list of many of the leading clubs around Europe, van Domselaar eschewed them all to remain in the Dutch league for another year to give her more confidence going forward. She tells me, “I had some options of course, Everything went well in the Euro, but I felt I was not ready to go yet. As a person, I wasn’t ready to make such a big step. I wanted to have one more good season at FC Twente to be more reliable. That’s why I chose to stay another year.”
Now van Domselaar has finally made the move abroad, surprising some who believed she would join a club playing in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. However, impressed by the ambition of Aston Villa coach Carla Ward and a guarantee of being first-choice goalkeeper, van Domselaar is convinced she has made the right choice.
“The feeling straight away was really good. It was a good feeling. Carla is a good coach in my opinion. They have other good coaches around her – the goalkeeping coach (Tom Pressman) who I really liked. The opportunity to play is very big here. At this moment in my career, I just want to play minutes and play games. I don’t want to be on the bench, even if it’s in a big club.”
“I also like how ambitious they are. They have shown in the last two seasons, they have ambition and they go for it. They have grown from ninth place to fifth place. I think we have the team right now to compete with the other four and maybe end up in the top four. The English league, in my opinion, it’s the best league in Europe so I really wanted to join the WSL.”
Already fluent in English, van Domselaar has had to get used to the distinctive ‘Brummie’ accent in the country’s second city. “The local accent – that was a struggle in the first week! I’m settling in day-by-day. The group and staff members are really nice and warm, and easy-going so it was easy to join them. Living abroad is new for me, but right now I’m enjoying every minute. Love the team, love the way we work, love the way we train. I’m happy.”