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Xavi Simons hopes to unleash his talent on grand stage for Netherlands

<span><a class="link " href="https://sports.yahoo.com/soccer/players/2091798/" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Xavi Simons;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Xavi Simons</a> encourages his teammates in the quarter-final against Turkey.</span><span>Photograph: APA-PictureDesk GmbH/Shutterstock</span>

Just like England, the Netherlands have not quite worked out the jigsaw. For Ronald Koeman the main question centres on where to put Xavi Simons. Let him come in from the right wing? Play him as a No 10? The head coach has been tweaking and tinkering throughout the tournament and thought he had got the answers he needed when the Paris Saint-Germain playmaker excelled as a 10 against Romania.

But then, against Turkey in the quarter-finals, the 21-year-old was the worst player on the pitch and only improved slightly from a position on the right in the second half. He may be the squad’s most expensive – and youngest – player but he was heavily criticised afterwards, including for his facial expressions.

Simons is likely to start against England, though, with the hope that he can unlock his divine talents at international level too. He is partly helped by the fact that none of the alternatives for a starting place – Jeremie Frimpong, Steven Bergwijn or Donyell Malen – have impressed thoroughly.

Related: ‘Silly’ Oranje bus becomes Euros symbol for Dutch fans in Germany

It is arguably the first time in Simons’ short career that things have not progressed as quickly as he would have wanted. Louis van Gaal picked him for the 2022 World Cup and made him the youngest Dutch player to ever make his debut in a World Cup knockout game.

Simons has always been a precocious player with something irresistible about him. He had more than one million followers on Instagram when he was a youth player at Barcelona and is now up to 5.9 million. As a comparison the Liverpool player Cody Gakpo – who has been outstanding at the Euros – has 1.8 million.

The fascination with Simons and his popularity comes from a combination of circumstances. Son of the former professional footballer Regillio Simons (who played for teams such as NAC, Fortuna and Willem II among others), he was born in the Netherlands but moved to Catalonia with his family at the age of three and was scouted by Barcelona at the age of six.

At the time Barcelona were not producing as many La Masia graduates for the first team as they had in the past and to deal with the criticism they turned to the next generation with Simons as the poster boy.

When he was 12 he featured in a commercial with the then Barcelona player Neymar but it was not only his performances on the pitch that caught attention. As Simons himself has hinted, his appearance also played a part. His bright, blond curly hair stood out and it gave him the nickname Rizo d’oro (golden curl). Barcelona’s yellow-red captain’s armband of Barcelona that he wore in the youth teams was a perfect match.

“There were hardly any blond boys at La Masia,” says Bobby Adekanye, who also played for Barcelona’s youth teams and is now with Go Ahead Eagles. And then, of course, there is that first name: Xavi, named after Xavi Hernández, the Catalan king of tiki-taka football. Just like Xavi Hernández, Xavi Simons often wore No 6 and sometimes also the No 14 of Johan Cruyff.

Off the pitch, Simons is a quiet character. “Xavi was the calmest person in their house,” according to Adekanye, who often visited the Simons family and is still in contact with them. “I was alone in Barcelona. ​​I am four years older than Xavi but he still helped me. He is very sweet, a connector, also on the pitch. He knew from an early age that he would reach the highest level, that was very much in his mind. He also showed that on the pitch. He was so keen, always wanted to get better, but at the same time also thought about others.”

His trajectory seemed set and it took most people by surprise when he announced, at the age of 16, that he was leaving for Paris Saint-Germain. Barcelona fans were in uproar, calling the teenager a traitor and a money-grabber and there were emojis of rats, snakes and banknotes under his farewell message on Instagram.

Simons has never talked in depth about the reason he left Barcelona but said in a rare interview with the Dutch magazine Helden in March 2023: “My sister was four at the time and also had to leave her friends behind, but we all went for it.” He added that he had grown up in difficult circumstances with his mother, who had split up from his father, often working 12-hour days and still did not always have enough money to buy herself something to eat. “With my pay cheque from PSG I bought clothes for my mother, brother and sister. It was nice to be able to give something back.”

At the age of 17 Simons was moved up to a first team that included players such as Kylian Mbappé, Lionel Messi and Neymar. “I trained with those guys every day, went to games, saw how they behaved off the pitch and interacted with fans. I’ve learned so much. People might think: Xavi hasn’t played much at PSG but what do people expect: Messi and Neymar were ahead of me in the pecking order.”

He regularly spent time at Neymar’s house. “Neymar knew me from his time in Barcelona, ​​he helped me and protected me. I was like a little brother to him. We’re still in touch. People have a certain image of Neymar, but they only see the footballer. Off the pitch he is a very good person.”

Unlike Neymar, Simons is not one for attention, questions about his millions of followers annoy him, and he would rather not do any interviews. He is the only Dutch starter who has not talked to the Dutch press during this tournament, which has led to some discussions back home.

The talent is clearly there, as shown by last season, when he excelled on loan at RB Leipzig, providing 15 assists and scoring 10 goals in all competitions. His future is in doubt though with reports suggesting he may leave PSG in the summer. For now though, all his focus is on the Euros and in the Oranje set-up he has an ally in the 30-year-old Memphis Depay. “I think Xavi has a great future ahead of him,” said the forward after the game against France, in which Simons had a goal disallowed. “It would be good if everyone got behind him. He is still young. I know better than anyone what it’s like to be criticised at a young age. Of course people can be critical, but don’t just be critical.”

Simons may be famous but, unlike Depay and Neymar, does not like the spotlight. He wants a quiet life and prefers Rojales, the small Spanish town where he grew up, to Paris. “I can be myself there,” Simons said in the Helden interview. “I don’t have to walk around with a hood and cap on. People sometimes ask if they can take a picture with me, but they are mainly young people. Older people still see me as little Xavi who has just got a bit bigger.”