LONDON – If soccer is about making the right choices, then Memphis Depay can be very pleased with his. The 21-year-old winger rose to prominence as a surprise star at the World Cup last summer, scoring twice for the Netherlands in Brazil, as a substitute against Chile and Australia.
He returned to his club side, PSV Eindhoven, with more confidence, but not, as some feared, arrogance. He signed a contract that doubled his pay, with the understanding that PSV would let him leave 12 months later. The target was clear: "I wanted to help PSV become champion."
Sure enough, PSV won its first Dutch title for seven years and Depay, with one round of matches to go, is currently the leagues top scorer with 22 goals. PSV kept its word and last week confirmed that Depay will join Manchester United this summer.
"I'm looking forward to the pace and intensity of the league in England," Depay told reporters at an Under Armour sponsor event on Wednesday. "I know it's a tough league, with lots of Dutch players who have played there. I talked to some of them. I want to prove myself and I believe in I can be a big player there. I was always reading about the Premier League. It has been a big dream and one that came true."
He also has the trust of Louis van Gaal, who coached the Netherlands to the World Cup semifinals and made Depay his first signing for the 2014-15 campaign.
"Van Gaal is very different, his performance on training ground is different to other trainers," Depay said. "After the World Cup he told me to stay hungry and I told myself to stay hungry. It's great to have an opportunity to play and train with a trainer with like that."
His international teammate Leroy Fer recently compared Depay to a young Cristiano Ronaldo. Depay is flattered by the comparison, and admits that he watches the Real Madrid star to improve his free-kick technique.
"If you read it in the media it is great, but I am 21 and I have not reached the level of Cristiano Ronaldo," he said. "He is a big hero for me and one day I hope to reach that level. He scores so many goals and I want to fight to be one of the best players in the world."
This season, Depay has scored most of his goals from the left-wing, though he admits that PSV coach Philip Cocu gives him license to drift centrally, which allows left back Jetro Willens to burst ahead of him.
A more appropriate comparison, perhaps then, is with Arjen Robben, who left PSV for a big English club at age 20 and went on to have a stellar career, winning trophies with Chelsea, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich.
"He is a special player and helped me a lot with the international team," Depay said.
Depay has become a poster boy for Under Armour, as he promotes the American company's new Speedform cleat. Depay, speaking to reporters at a high-ceilinged cavern of a café, later dons some training gear and shows off his dribbling skills in his new footwear. It was quickly apparent why the PSV coaching staff was so impressed when they invited him to train with the first team at 16.
"He actually thought that he was ready for the big time [back then]. That was true in part," Erik ten Hag, PSV's assistant coach at the time and now in charge of Bayern Munich's reserve team, told Voetbal International. "He was really very strong. We let him train regularly with the first team. Then you could see that on that level, too, he could dribble past a man. He still does that and that's a huge weapon. At the elite level, how many players can really dribble past someone? That's a rare quality."
Depay is a marketer's dream, with his smart use of social media and youth-appealing body art: he has the word "successvol" (meaning "successful") tattooed on the inside of his lower lip and, as is apparent from his rolled-up chinos and sockless trainers, more imagery on both ankles. The words "Dream chaser" are on his chest.
"I believe I can be one of the best players in the world and I have to dream and believe to achieve," he says. "You just have to work every day on your dreams. My dreams started with going to the World Cup, and then when I was there I scored two goals and I was very happy. But when the World Cup was finished I realized that was not it. I had to take more on to the pitch–there was more to do."
That's the attitude that impressed ten Hag, and Van Gaal. At Manchester United next season, he has the chance to chase more dreams. Depay has been rewarded for his patience in spending the extra year in Holland.
"I can now cope with different situations on the pitch," he says. "It's a good choice."
United fans may soon agree.