To make it to the very top levels of any sport as an athlete, it must take an unfathomable reservoir of self-belief. With all the obstacles, the sheer amount of work, and all the days where the dream must seem as close as one of Saturn’s moons, one would have to be able to call on a never-ending supply of “I can do this” to push through. So to say any player thinks he’s better than he is is sort of silly, because they all have had to for so long. And for a minimum of 99 percent of their lives, they’ve been every bit as good as they thought they were.
Still, there are the occasional ones you watch and you can’t help but say to yourself, “If only this guy was as good as he thinks he is.” Arsenal fans can recall Nicklas Bendtner, who carried himself as the lovechild of Maradona and Ares and yet often it seemed like he didn’t know which one was his right or left foot when he actually got on the field, which wasn’t all that much. Clinton Morrison was another who had all the trappings of the biggest star in the world, banged in goals in the Championship, then got to the Premier League and found himself missing more openings than a teenager. Neymar gets beaten with this stick a lot, and it might be accurate only in that the marketing campaign around him, which he didn’t have much to do with, makes him out to be the greatest player ever.
Memphis Depay has been in this category for a while. He first came to the world’s attention in the World Cup in 2014, scoring twice and assisting another in the Netherlands’ run to the semis. After another dominant club season in Holland, he earned himself a $37 million move to Manchester United. And for two seasons he was a beer fart, managing two goals in 34 league appearances. In his first swing at the big time, which he had promised ever since his debut, he whiffed and fell over in a fashion even Javy Baez would even laugh at.
A move to the darker lights of France and Lyon would come next and, away from the stage that Depay always thought befitted him, he’s been excellent. Sixty-three goals in 139 appearances, including six last season in the Champions League, as Lyon made a surprise run to the semifinals. This season, they briefly threatened a title charge as well behind Depay’s 20 goals and 12 assists, all while he openly talked about Barcelona and other big clubs wanting to chase him down.
Depay is a free agent this summer, and he returns to a big tournament with the Dutch for the first time since that World Cup in 2014. As hard as it is to believe, Holland didn’t qualify for France and the last Euros, nor Russia and the last World Cup. It’s been a pretty dark road since they bored everyone to death on their way to the semis in Brazil, needing Arjen Robben’s greatest ever dive to get past Mexico and a penalty shootout against Costa Rica before succumbing to penalties against Argentina, not scoring an actual goal in either match. This should be their return to prominence.
And it should be Depay’s as well. While the Dutch backline is missing Virgil van Dijk, and Matthijs De Ligt’s form with Juventus was up and down, there is enough attacking talent for the Dutch to easily score their way out of what should be batting practice in the group and win one or two knockout games. Frenkie De Jong finally found his feet in Barcelona this season, and wingers Steven Berghuis and Donyell Malen tore the Dutch league apart. Davy Klaasen in the middle was a creative force for Ajax, and Gini Wijnaldum can’t miss when he throws on the orange, or oranje, shirt (11 goals in his last 16 matches for his country). The chances will be there for Depay.
And if he can’t finish, if he can’t make himself the apple of the eye of all the big clubs around Europe for a second time, Wout Weghorst, who just poured in 20 goals for Wolfsburg in Germany, is waiting to do so. But this feels like Depay’s time to assert himself on the level he tripped over the last time he tried. It may be for the Netherlands as a whole.
Ukraine might have already won over some neutrals by royally pissing off Russia, as their jerseys depict a map of the country including Crimea, which Russia annexed seven years ago. Under legend Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine topped their qualifying group over Portugal being tactically diverse and starting to sport some spicy young talent. They still depend a little too much on Premier League role players like Oleksander Zinchenko and Andriy Yarmolenko, but Ruslan Malinovskyi is a major part of the seriously heavy metal Atalanta side in Italy, and his set-piece delivery around could cause headaches for Ukraine’s opponents.
If you squint, you could see where Austria might provide the same kind of headaches. They have David Alaba, on his way to Real Madrid after being Munich’s best defender for a couple seasons. Marcel Sabitzer has been captain and engine for RB Leipzig. Saša Kalajdžićhad a breakout season for Stuttgart. Christoph Baumgartner runs all over the field as if his scrotum was recently signed. If the Dutch or Ukraine get caught napping, they could sneak out of this group.
Or they’re the exact type that could lose to North Macedonia, making their tournament debut and probably being the longest shot to be here at all. They absolutely came in the back-door, finishing behind Austria and Polan in the qualifying group but beating Kosovo and Georgia in the playoffs to arrive. The only names fans might recognize are Ezgjan Alioski, the maniacally mobile left-back for the maniacal Leeds United, and Goran Pandev, who has been tottling around Serie A for 74 years. They might be happy to just be here, but that’s what we said about Iceland four years ago.
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Euro 2021 kicks off Friday, June 11