This article is part of the Guardian’s Euro 2020 Experts’ Network, a cooperation between some of the best media organisations from the 24 countries who qualified. theguardian.com is running previews from two countries each day in the run-up to the tournament kicking off on 11 June.
When Memphis Depay was named biggest talent of the Dutch Eredivisie in 2015, his price was a Cruyff court (a very neat artificial grass court from the Cruyff Foundation), built wherever he liked. Eventually Depay decided it should be put in Moordrecht, the small rural village where he grew up. Depay said into a microphone during the opening in the summer of 2019: “I was always out here on the pitches, always playing football; you see the result.”
The result is Depay growing in to a successful one-man-army up front for the Netherlands. If it wasn’t for the financial crisis that hit Barcelona, he would be playing there alongside Lionel Messi and Antoine Griezmann. At Lyon he is the undisputed leader.
Depay is one of the most extravagant players in the world. It is hard to believe he grew up in a place such as Moordrecht, bordered by farm meadows and with 8,700 inhabitants. It is not very fertile ground for professional footballers. In the canteen of the local football club besides a shirt from Depay only hangs the one of Leen van Steensel, mostly a substitute at first division Excelsior. When the name “Memphis” is mentioned there, not everyone is positive: “He should give a hundred balls to the club,” says a stocky man, angrily.
There was also some grumbling among a number of residents when Depay arrived late in his Bentley, followed by a van with escorts, at the day of the opening of the Memphis Depay Cruyff Court. “Acting normal is already crazy enough” is a famous Dutch saying. The children, though, still talk about that day, Depay took his time for them, played football with them, just like the community of Moluccans in Moordrecht will always defend him against negative talk.
For there has been plenty of that. Depay has been by far the most talked about Dutch player for years. If it’s not about his new clothing line, or his rehabilitation in record time from a serious knee injury, then it’s an Instagram-post posing with a liger (a cross between a tiger and a lion), or him chilling on a yacht with a glass of whisky and a necklace worth a €100,000, his interviews filled with biblical texts, the introduction of a new goal celebration, his appearance during demonstrations against racism in Amsterdam, the enormous tattoo of a lion’s head on his back or the publication of his merciless biography.
Football-wise from the start of his career he stands out for spectacular, intuitive “street” actions, his excellent shooting technique and his bravery. He breaks through at PSV under Phillip Cocu as a left-winger and is called up for the 2014 World Cup by Louis van Gaal. There he scores against Australia and Chile but is mainly a substitute in a team that unexpectedly finishes third, but cannot qualify for the following two major tournaments. The golden generation (Van Persie, Robben, Van der Vaart, Sneijder) says goodbye, and it takes a while before Depay, Virgil van Dijk, Frenkie de Jong and Matthijs de Ligt fill the gap.
Memphis Depay scores against Northern Ireland in Rotterdam in qualifying, helping the Netherlands reach a major finals again. Photograph: Soccrates Images/Getty Images
Depay has already had a rather unhappy episode at Manchester United. With the help of a company specialising in data, he chooses Lyon as his next destination in 2017. It turns out to be a golden match, just like the entrance of Ronald Koeman a year later as head coach of the Dutch national team. Koeman sees a central striker in Depay, with the freedom to roam, to follow his intuition and without defensive duties. His stats (11 goals, 12 assists in 19 matches) have been astounding in the Koeman era. Depay is currently the only Dutch attacker of international class.
He is cosmopolitan, an entrepreneur who talks (or raps) in a mixture of English and street Dutch. It is difficult to believe he is from the quiet town of Moordrecht where practically no one talks or acts like that, where life is quiet most of the time.
He did not have a carefree childhood there. His Ghanaian father left the family in a hurry when Memphis was three years old. His mother remarried in 2002 to a neighbour. Together with the then eight-year-old Memphis she moved into his house, where 10 of the neighbour’s children already lived.
It was hell, Depay writes in his autobiography Heart of a Lion, which came out in 2019. He was constantly attacked by roommates. “Mostly it involved fights with the fists, but I was also threatened with a knife a number of times. Another time a boy clamped a pair of pliers on my ear and started pulling hard. I was constantly on my guard. I was called ‘monkey’ and ‘shithead’.”
From then on he goes through life numb. He does not want to come out from under his school table for a long time, loses respect for others and for himself, ends up in constant fights and hardly trusts anybody. Later in the book he says that this phase taught him how to survive.
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Only when he plays football does he feel free. “I blew out all the pain on the football field. It was my distraction. My liberation, rather. I had to be the best. Eat everyone on that field.”
Living with his grandfather Kees and grandmother Jans, who also lived in Moordrecht, Memphis regains some happiness in life, especially with Kees with whom he also likes to fish. Or during the card game Skip-Bo with grandma. His grandfather was a talented gymnast and high jumper. Memphis was also talented at gymnastics, but football was his greatest passion.
The four-year-old Memphis predicted to his late grandfather how his career would go. “Grandpa, I’ll be playing at FC Barcelona.” That was a difference with grandpa Kees, who was very satisfied with his house on the dike. “Memphis has always thought bigger,” says his grandmother.
In between his many activities, he still likes to visit her in Moordrecht. “For a game of Skip-Bo. Just like before.”
Bart Vlietstra writes for de Volkskrant.
Follow him on Twitter @BVlietstra.
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