The longer you spend exploring the strange and spellbinding world of Memphis Depay, the brilliant 26-year-old Lyon forward, the more you find and the less you understand.
Does it matter, for example, that he is partial to the odd cigar, and keeps several boxes in the house? That he has almost 10 million Instagram followers, films rap videos in his spare time, gets his hair cut every week? That during lockdown, he earned the wrath of animal rights groups by posing for photographs with a baby liger? That he failed at Manchester United?
In other words: which of the multitude of extraordinary tales swirling around Depay are relevant, and which are just noise?
Often we like to compartmentalise the actions of footballers into the “on-field” and the “off-field”: the essential and the extraneous, the part that matters, and the part that doesn’t. But this is a distinction that is harder to make for Depay, a man whose feats and foibles seem to spring from the same howling instinct: an urge to express himself.
You can see it everywhere: from the flair and risk in his game to the brassy social media persona, from his rhymes (sample lyric: “Catch a vibe in Paris, young king living lavish, back in Lyon going savage, they be waiting for hat-tricks”) to his deadly finishing. There’s a story from one of his early outings with the Dutch national team, when he humiliates Robin van Persie with a flamboyant stepover during a training game. “Who do you think you are?” a furious van Persie screams at the young winger. “You’re nothing!”
Later that day, Depay is sitting in his hotel room, distraught and despondent, when there’s a knock on the door. “I was sitting on the loo,” Depay remembers in his autobiography, Heart of a Lion (yes: he’s written a book, and a compulsively honest one at that, despite its vaguely Partridge-esque tone). “Although I wasn’t actually finished, I quickly wiped my bum, ran out of the bathroom, opened the door, and sure enough: Robin. He’d come to apologise.” The reader is left to speculate whether their rapprochement was sealed with a handshake.
This is the enigma of Depay, a man who through his many complexities and contradictions, his heartfelt no-filter delivery, almost dares you to misunderstand him. In the Netherlands they know him as the brazen tearaway whose talent may finally be catching up with his prodigious ego. In France they know him as Lyon’s captain and talisman, dragging a maladjusted club to their first Champions League quarter-final in a decade. In England, meanwhile, Depay is still best remembered as the “United reject”, a misfiring winger who encapsulated the wasteful anaemia of the Louis van Gaal years.
Depay arrived at United from PSV in 2015, the same summer Van Persie left: a symbol of renewal and rebirth, inheriting the No 7 shirt worn by Best, Cantona, Ronaldo. But Van Gaal’s stilted, structured machine offered little scope for expression, and as he drifted out of first-team contention under José Mourinho, life took on a darker hue. Isolated from his entourage and his mother, he would spend his days confined to the mansion he had rented from Phil Neville, his nights driving listlessly around the Manchester countryside. One day, returning home from another game he had watched from the stands, he finally snapped. Out of nowhere he started screaming, lashing out, hurling objects around his kitchen in a blind rage.
It was the wake-up call he needed. Adrift, alone, stripped not just of his professional dignity but his simple enjoyment of the game, Depay left United in early 2017, resolving to choose his next move with utmost care. He hired an analytics company called SciSports to find him a club that matched his specifications: a quick attacking style, the freedom to roam without too many defensive duties, and a vacancy at left-wing. Lyon fitted the bill, and in a freer attacking role the goals have begun to flow: 53 in 135 games, forming productive partnerships first with Nabil Fekir and more recently Moussa Dembélé and Bertrand Traoré.
A cruciate injury in December threatened to derail his season, putting him out of Euro 2020 into the bargain. In his absence Lyon struggled, limping to seventh place in Ligue 1. But the pandemic has come to Depay’s rescue, giving him time to regain fitness and return to Rudi Garcia’s side as the attacking spearhead in a 3-5-2 formation. It was his goal that eliminated Juventus in the last 16, an outrageous Panenka penalty that sealed victory on away goals. “Playing with him and without him,” Garcia observes, “are not the same thing.” On Saturday night they face Manchester City in the quarter-finals.
Perhaps in Depay’s jarring fall and stirring rise lies a salutary antidote to a game of sharp, sweeping judgments. It’s easy to forget that he was 21 when he arrived at United and 22 when he left: written off, sold for scrap, assailed by snide jibes about his spending, his lifestyle and appearance. To this day his affectations and side hustles, his ostentatious displays of wealth, his unswerving determination to do whatever the hell he wants, continue to make him a magnet for criticism. And if, as rumoured, he eventually joins one of Europe’s biggest clubs, you wonder how his fierce individuality and brazen expressiveness will fit into a sport becoming ever more rigidly systematised at its elite end.
But zoom out a little and the real story here is one of overwhelming triumph against the odds. After being abandoned by his father, he and his mother were subjected to prolonged abuse by his new step-family. The most harrowing passages of his book are those where he lucidly recalls the beatings he received, the breaking glass, the doors being kicked down. “I started to find it almost normal to get hit,” he writes. He dealt soft drugs and was expelled from multiple schools. Bullied into silence, he sought expression through other outlets. Music allowed him to articulate his emotions in a way real life could not. And football would be his helicopter out of misery.
And so, when you have come this far, why stop now? Why limit yourself to Lyon, to football, to one career, to one view of the world? Depay wants it all. He wants to exalt the glory of God and help the deaf and blind children of Ghana, and he wants to pose on his yacht in a £20,000 jacket. He wants the lion tattoo on his back and the real thing on his shoulder. He wants the Champions League, the big move, the accolades, the money in the bank, the album, the book, the film, the fame. It all matters. Or nothing does.