BUDAPEST, Hungary (AP) — The European Championship is finally giving Memphis Depay the chance to shine on the big stage.
The Netherlands forward has two goals and two assists heading into Sunday’s match against the Czech Republic in the round of 16. He has scored seven goals in eight games in 2021 and, at 27, he’s entering his peak years.
Depay’s mercurial ability played a large part in the team’s three wins in the group stage at Euro 2020, with the soon-to-be Barcelona forward scoring or creating half of the eight goals.
“He showed how important he is for us. He’s a player with special qualities,” Netherlands defender Daley Blind said. “He can do magical things with the ball.”
Netherlands assistant coach Ruud van Nistelrooy, a superb finisher himself, said Depay has blossomed into a leader.
“I see a focus and conviction, a need to show what he has and the will to be the best,” Van Nistelrooy said. “This is something which I find beautiful to see.”
But it wasn’t always that way for Depay.
When he joined Manchester United six years ago, it was amid much hype. He was given the iconic No. 7 jersey worn by George Best, Eric Cantona, David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Best and Cantona were among the most skillful players ever to grace United, Beckham one of the club’s finest midfielders. Ronaldo, a dazzling winger with lightning-fast feet, is now the co-record holder for most goals overall in a men’s national team with 109. Ronaldo is also the leading scorer at Euro 2020 with five goals and he is the competition’s overall leader with 14.
The weight of expectation at United crushed Depay, who scored only seven goals in 53 games.
He left in January 2017 to revive his career with seven-time French champion Lyon, the same year he started pursuing another passion as a hip-hop artist.
Depay netted 76 goals in 178 games for Lyon, including a spectacular turn and lob from the halfway line.
The Czechs have a major scoring threat of their own in striker Patrik Schick. He has scored three goals so far at Euro 2020, the same as Netherlands midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum.
Schick scored one of the tournament’s best goals with a spectacular looping shot from just inside the halfway line in a 2-0 win over Scotland.
“It was probably the most beautiful goal of the tournament. It was world class,” Netherlands coach Frank de Boer said Saturday through a translator. “We respect every striker, especially him.”
But he is the only player to have scored for the Czechs, who scraped through as one of the four best third-place teams.
Czech captain Vladimir Darida, a midfielder with 73 international appearances, is doubtful after sustaining an unspecified injury during practice on Friday.
Wijnaldum will wear a captain’s armband emblazoned with “OneLove” and a multicolored heart in Sunday’s match.
“Of course, everybody knows the situation in Hungary,” he told broadcaster NOS, referring to a new Hungarian law that prohibits sharing with minors any content portraying homosexuality or sex reassignment.
The law has been denounced as anti-LGBT discrimination.
There was strong support in Munich on Wednesday for the LGBT community before Germany’s match against Hungary.
Germany captain Manuel Neuer wore a rainbow armband.
“That appealed to us,” Wijnaldum said.
De Boer added: “We are against every form of discrimination.”
CRUYFF AND PANENKA
The two sides have met before, when then-Czechoslovakia beat the Netherlands 3-1 after extra time in the 1976 semifinals.
The Dutch had Johan Cruyff back then.
His signature move was standing with his back to a defender, then spinning around him while flicking the ball through his legs in one swift movement.
It became known as “The Cruyff Turn.”
But the Czechs had a player who would become famous in his own right.
When the final against West Germany went to penalty kicks, midfielder Antonin Panenka had the tournament-winning kick at his feet. In front of him was the imposing Sepp Maier, one of the greatest goalkeepers of his era.
Panenka took a long run-up but then softly chipped the ball down the middle of the goal as Maier despairingly dived to the left.
This style of penalty kick is known as a “Panenka.”
France great Zinedine Zidane scored with a Panenka against Italy in the 2006 World Cup final, and Depay sometimes takes penalties that way.
Associated Press writer Mike Corder in Amsterdam contributed to this report.
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