Memphis Depay was traveling with the Olympique Lyon Foundation last January, for some benefit dinner for the homeless… They drove past a Roma camp outside of Lyon, a desolate little community of old caravans and rotting huts. Memphis asked the driver to stop. He’d seen this before and was intrigued. This time, he decided to step out of the car and check it out. The Lyon forward started talking to some kids in the camp and asked about their plight. A couple of days later, Depay revisited the camp with several of his friends and went to deliver a huge trailer with clothes and food.
“The Bible says: love thy neighbour like you love thyself,” Memphis says now, a few months later.
This interview wasn’t about the visit to the Roma camp. This interview was about his return to form at Lyon. “I love myself, a lot. So I can love others a lot too. You too, everyone. God created us all.”
When Memphis talks about his faith, he is open and genuine. Spontaneous even. And this takes some time to process, as the street player from Moordrecht is usually stern, unapproachable and aloof. he does mention his faith, on his insta account for instance, but every time a reporter talks to Memphis, it’s a short talk and it hardly ever is about the Bible or loving thy neighbour….
It’s always about his football, his image and his ambition. And in those talks, he’s headstrong, unfathomable and sometimes downright annoying. “God was there for me, always, but I wasn’t always there to recieve. But it has changed. I haven’t changed so much, my personality is the same, but things are added to me, I learned things. I developed. I think I changed for the better.”
And, maybe a coincidence, Memphis is better on the pitch than ever. For months already. The player who seemed to play with a straightjacket on at Man United and in his first months in Lyon, looks like a player liberated. And it shows in his stats: 16 goals, 12 assist. But the metamorphosis is best observed by watching him play 90 minutes. He plays in a free striker’s role, and he plays wonderful and full of confidence. The Dutchman is involved in every goal threatening situation by Lyon and might well be solely responsible for delivering CL football to Lyon.
“I’m playing my best football, ever? I appreciate it. I do think I’m going alright, I’m on the right path, but I don’t know where my ceiling is. No one knows, really. Only God. But I don’t play with fear, with uncertainty. I play without the brakes on and I will get to a new level at some stage. That, I am sure of.”
His tone of voice is completely different compared to our last conversation, at the end of 2015. Memphis was just at Man United for 5 months. He was fired up, he was eager to show his skills and he had a lot of anxiety, impatience and swagger.
Back then, he said: “I’m not sure what it is, but I don’t want to be average. Mainstream is not my thing. You get hit by a car, on the middle of the road, hahaha. And you, my dream was never to become a football. My dream was, to become the best footballer. That is my goal. And I can manage that, the pressure will never squash me.”
But the former Sparta talent did struggle, in the years after. With himself. With the plethoria of tasks he got from coach Van Gaal, playing from the left. If Memphis even played. Under Van Gaal and later under Mourinho, Memphis drifted out of the picture more and more. The confident top talent became a doubter, and this was visible at Oranje as well. He was unreachable, or he was vulnerable, or he was not interested… When he moved to Lyon in January 2017, he made his debut vs Lille with a crucial mistake. Sport paper L’Equipe was devastating in their opinions about him.
Memphis was struggling and his circle started to get concerned. He might have the image of a rapper with a lot of tattoos and gold and a guy with a difficult personality, but the forward is also hyper ambitious and very serious about his game and working extremely hard to reach his goals.
Memphis is working with a small circle of advisers, for years already, such as his manager Kees Ploegsma jr (son of the famous PSV technical director of the 1970s and 1980s) and sport psychologist Joost Leenders. They know his specific character, and his complex background. They looked for different ways to reach Memphis, but nothing seemed to work.
Memphis now: “The people who love me and care for me tell me things that are meant well. I am always polite to people who mean well, but the last years, I have closed myself of a bit. I needed to fully focus on football.”
His current way of celebrating, two fingers in his ears, is the symbol of that. It doesn’t mean he’s deaf for criticism, as some think. He usually does his fingers thing, and then drops to his knees and points to the sky, in thanks. “I only listen to God” is what he seems to say.
“I’m not religious in a way that I go to church or make Catholic crosses. I am fine with others doing what they do. For me, God is everywhere. I have a direct relationship with God, not via a church. God is everywhere.”
His faith helps him. Helps him find a way through the complex jungle that is top football. His fiancee Lori Harvey is the daughter of American tv star and comedian Steve Harvey. The Harveys are a devout Christian family. And Memphis mum was very religious as well. As a teenager, Memphis wasn’t.
“I met someone who showed me the way. I am super happy with this and highly appreciative. Not everyone has that peace, and neither did I when I was younger. I see players go onto the pitch in fear, with fear of making mistakes. Not that I had fear, so much. But whenever I played one or two passes wrong, it would get in my head. And I would think, ok next time, I need to play without risk… I don’t have this now, my head is free.”
The ones close to him saw this changes earlier when he dropped to the bench at Lyon. Usually, he’d drown in his own frustrations, like at Man United, but now, as a sub, he had massive value.
“Against Nantes last week, I missed a sitter. And when you start analysing this, your game will be affected by it. Now I think, ok. I missed. There is heaps of time left for me to set that right. And I was able to. I want to entertain the fans, I want to enjoy myself as well. And it’s not just goals. It’s also assists or dummy runs. That does give me something extra.”
Memphis is in a good space. And it shows. Last, when Oranje came together with Ronald Koeman as coach, Memphis was a happy-go-lucky fella. He was joking around with a reporter, was smiling for his interviews. And debutant Guus Til (AZ) said after the practice session that Memphis had come up to him directly, to bid him welcome at Oranje.
And now, at Lyon, he’s no longer the stern and stoic player we know from the past, eyes down and mumbling responses. He is now calm and positive. “It’s not in my football that I made changes. It’s also outside of the game. I can tell I’m changing. As a human being, I grew just by relying on my faith.”
We will have to wait and see in what way Oranje will benefit from his current form. But for Koeman, it would be golden, as Oranje can use a new key player with special skills. Against Portugal, the new Memphis was already visible.
And funnily enough, that might have been the game that changed the rest of his season, also at Lyon. His coach Genesio was on the stands in Geneva, at Portugal – Holland. He saw Memphis shine as a false number 9 and the next Lyon game, he gave Memphis a similar role. In this new 4-4-2 system, Depay is making a tremendous impression.
“I love playing freely in space, I need to be able to follow my instincts. Not that I don’t want to defend but playing strictly as a left winger is to limited for me.”
His popularity in France and The Netherlands is huge, particularly with the youth. He’s a sort of king on social media, in street fashion and in football. He was the centre of attention recently in Amsterdam, when Under Armour – his clothing sponsor – opened a new store. “I love it, talking with fans. I will take the time for it, and they tell me everything. It’s special. I do love to be alone but at times I have to give back and connect with the fans. And I do realise I can inspire people. I don’t think I’m that special, apart from football, but I will aim to inspire people if they need me to.”