Dutch professional footballers can be found in every corner of the world, from the spotlights of the major European competitions to the more adventurous employment on other continents. Talks in the section Over the Border Football zone weekly with a player who is active outside the country’s borders. This time with attention to Danilho Doekhi, who embarked on his first foreign adventure at 1.FC Union Berlin this summer. The 24-year-old central defender is now completely at home in the German capital.
By Wessel Antes
Born in Rotterdam, Doekhi started playing football at Xerxes. After only three seasons he was picked up by Excelsior Rotterdam. In March 2016, the mandekker made his debut at the age of seventeen in the Eredivisie against AZ (2-0 defeat). A few months later he made the switch to Ajax, where his uncle Winston Bogarde worked as a trainer. Doekhi remembers well that the Amsterdam club knocked on the door of Kralingen. “I didn’t have a contract at that time and I could be picked up for a training fee. That year I also played in the the Dutch Under 18, which put me in the spotlight at several clubs.
After much consideration, Doekhi chose Ajax. “I wanted to develop myself by training every day with the best players in the country. Moreover, it was not yet certain whether I would have a basic place at Excelsior the following year and what that process would look like. My uncle had no influence on that choice for Ajax, although I did of course have extra information about the state of affairs within the club through him. I was able to make a lot of progress at Ajax on the physical aspect, but I also learned a lot while playing football.” Doekhi eventually played two seasons for the Amsterdam club.
As a basic player for Jong Ajax, Doekhi was part of the U21 team that became champion in the Jupiler League (now Kitchen Champion Division, ed.) in the 2017/18 season. For the right leg, that was the absolute highlight of his time in Amsterdam. “For the first time in history, a team of reserves became champions at the second level of the Netherlands. A season earlier, Jong Ajax had finished second with players such as Frenkie de Jong, Abdelhak Nouri and Matthijs de Ligt. The fact that we succeeded a season later makes it very special. In the years that followed, not even a U21 team came close to that performance, so that says a lot.”
Danilho Doekhi with his uncle Winston Bogarde after the Jong Ajax championship
De Ligt made the most impression on Doekhi during his employment with Ajax. “He really stood out, with all his qualities. He was a year younger than me, but already so far in terms of level. With him you immediately saw that he would reach the top. He quickly went to the first team and did a great job there too, of course. Justin Kluivert was also very good, so fast.” Although Doekhi could actually stay with Ajax for another season, he opted for a transfer to Vitesse in the summer of 2018. At the time, he saw little prospects for his position in the main force of the Amsterdammers.
“In the championship year with Jong I had played almost everything. I felt I was ready for the Eredivisie,” said Doekhi, who thinks it is important to always remain realistic. “Matthijs did a great job at Ajax and Daley Blind had just returned from Manchester United. Then I took the plunge to look further. Vitesse was one of the Eredivisie clubs with interest and I actually liked that almost immediately. It has been a step that has worked out well.”
In Arnhem, Doekhi played 140 games for Vitesse, in which he scored five goals and four assists. With the club he played, among other things, a cup final and managed to spend the winter in the Conference League. Doekhi feels connected to Vitesse through his four seasons in the GelreDome. “It was a beautiful period in my life. I have been able to develop myself well as a player, but also on a human level.”
“The European campaign was my highlight,” says Doekhi, thinking about last season. “We were in a difficult group, with Tottenham Hotspur and Stade Rennes. Nevertheless, we managed to qualify for the next round, in which we beat Rapid Wien. Against AS Roma, the eventual winner, we played two good games, but we ended up in a rather unfortunate way. All in all it was a wonderful adventure.”
Danilho Doekhi in a physical duel with Tottenham Hotspur star Harry Kane
Doekhi finds it annoying to see his old club struggle this season. Vitesse is currently in thirteenth place in the Eredivisie. “It was of course also difficult for the club last summer. Many key players have left during a takeover process. I think the clarity was missing. You can see that on the field now. Many fixed patterns are missing, which means that the performance is somewhat less than in recent years. That’s a shame.” The defender still has a lot of contact with Million Manhoef. “Most recently, when he scored twice against Ajax (2-2, ed.). It was a great performance from Vitesse and a good example for us (Union, ed.).”
Last summer, Doekhi was transfer-free. He didn’t really see a transfer within the Netherlands as an option. “There was not necessarily a shortage of central defenders at the back of the Dutch top clubs. Ajax has Jurriën Timber, Feyenoord of course Gernot Trauner and PSV has André Ramalho and Jordan Teze. I didn’t expect them to knock on my door and they never did. I had an excellent season, so I was an interesting option for foreign clubs.”
Doekhi could go to Italy and Scotland, among others, but opted for an adventure in the Bundesliga. An ideal next step, he says. “Germany appealed to me because the level is a lot higher than in the Eredivisie, but the step can be made well. This club really appealed to me because since the promotion it has turned out that Union can really be a stable Bundesliga club. After the first conversations I immediately had a good feeling.” In the Stadion An der Alten Försterei, the physically strong rearguard player is fixed until mid-2025.
Danilho Doekhi in duel with Bayern Munich striker Sadio Mane
Doekhi likes life in the German capital. “Berlin is a big city, a truly cosmopolitan city. It is special to be able to play football in the capital of Germany. I think there are certainly lesser places to go to as a first foreign adventure. I really enjoy the city and can only be positive about life here with my girlfriend and daughter.” In his spare time, Doekhi likes to go out for dinner. “Sometimes also with the other Dutch people here in Berlin. A number of them also play at Hertha BSC. I still played together with Deyovaisio (Zeefuik, ed.) at Ajax. At Union I spend a lot of time with Sheraldo (Becker, ed.). That does help with acclimatization in Germany.”
Doekhi has a lot less free time than was the case with Vitesse. “In Germany you often go to a hotel the day before the game at away games. At home games you have to report early. It takes up much more free time than I was used to in the Netherlands. At Vitesse we hardly ever collected a day before the game. Everything was easy to drive and that is different in Germany. I try to rest a lot in my free time, so that I can perform optimally during the races.”
Union is known as a traditional cult club in Germany. The stadium is very popular with many football fans. “Playing in this stadium is a unique experience. The fans are very fanatical, are always there and keep singing for ninety minutes. Whether it is a cup match against smaller teams or a league match against Bayern, they always provide the same atmosphere. Really great. The stadium is great. Only the main grandstand has seating, the other three grandstands have standing room only. It may not be the largest stadium in the Bundesliga, but it is one of the most atmospheric.”
Union had a great start to the season and is currently fifth in Germany. The club is aiming for 40 points in the Bundesliga this season and has already collected 27. “If you look at the first half of the season, we just did a fantastic job. We even stood first for a long time. We are also through in the Europa League and cup. Considering the budgets in the Bundesliga, that’s a really great performance. As a team we can be proud of this first half of the season”, says Doekhi, who thinks he knows what Union’s secret is. “We are a close-knit team. Everyone in the field knows what is expected. We work very hard and are therefore hard to beat.”
Doekhi has played eleven games so far The Eisners. He is very satisfied with his performance and development. “I didn’t play everything, but I played well in the duels in which I participated. I had an injury in between, so I missed a number of games. In addition, we have a large selection and we play many matches. Because the selection is fairly equal in quality, the trainer chooses to rotate in a number of positions. So I have to show what I can do in every game I play.”
“The best moment so far? My goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach (2-1, ed.)”, said Doekhi, thinking back to October 30. “Creating the winner during a home game in the 97th minute is of course wonderful. That goal kept us ahead and the stadium exploded with joy.” In addition to his goal, the defender already acted as a declarant twice against Schalke 04 (1-6 win) and SC Freiburg (4-1 defeat).
Danilho Doekhi goes crazy after his winning goal against Borussia Mönchengladbach
The home game against Bayern Munich was also a great experience for Doekhi. “Then you suddenly play against all world top players. It’s nice to be able to measure yourself against those players, especially when things are going well. That game ended 1-1.” Doekhi did not swap shirts with any of Bayern’s stars. “I’m not really into asking players I don’t know for shirts. I like to trade with friends. Against Hertha I exchanged with Deyovaisio, I also have the shirt of Mitchel Bakker (Bayer Leverkusen).”
Doekhi hopes to develop further in Berlin in the coming months. He wants to become a key player in the Union team. A special diptych awaits in February against his old club Ajax. “I had a lot of messages after that draw. Everyone wants to come and see here in Germany. For this club it is a wonderful draw and for me it is of course extra special. On the other hand, I would also have liked to draw another club. Barcelona or Juventus for example, since I have played quite often against Ajax in recent years.”
Doekhi knows very few players personally from the current Ajax. He did play together with Remko Pasveer at Vitesse. “But I don’t speak to him every day. If I run into him before the game, maybe for a while. Do I want his shirt? Maybe yes, although that is a goalkeeper shirt of course, haha! We will see.” Doekhi thinks that Union can make it difficult for the Amsterdammers. “Ajax is a bit less in shape than in recent years, but of course we will only meet them in a few months. So you don’t know what form they are in then and maybe they will do something on the transfer market. We have faith that we can beat them!”
“In the Bundesliga we also regularly show that we can perform against top clubs,” Doekhi continues his story. “We are a difficult team to play against, so hopefully we will also show that in that diptych with Ajax. Of course we play first away and then at home. If we bring a good result from Amsterdam, Ajax can expect a hot evening in Berlin.”