Liverpool’s Gakpo takes inspiration from God, Salah and a wooden hippo

LIVERPOOL, England — There are moments of serendipity that can steer the fortunes of a footballer’s career. For Liverpool forward Cody Gakpo, his came on Aug. 31, 2022.

It was the penultimate day of the summer transfer window and Gakpo was a man in demand. He had excelled at boyhood club PSV Eindhoven with three goals and three assists from the first three Eredivisie games of the season (having managed 21 goals and 15 assists from 47 in all competitions the previous campaign) and there was transfer interest from two major Premier League clubs.

As the deadline ticked down, he had three scenarios in front of him: he could sign for Leeds United or Southampton, or stay at PSV. He needed guidance, but he was also involved in a match that evening against FC Volendam. Unsure if it would be his last for PSV, he came up with a unique solution.

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“It was hectic, and it was difficult from a mental point of view,” Gakpo tells ESPN. “So, in the end I put it all in God’s hands. If I scored once, I was going to Southampton; twice and I was going to Leeds; if I scored three, I was staying.”

PSV went on to win 7-1. Gakpo scored his first, a penalty, after 25 minutes. Then came his second 14 minutes later, a driven effort across the goalkeeper. It was ambiguous whether he could claim a third five minutes after the break, given his shot deflected heavily off a Volendam defender, and Gakpo was substituted in the 63rd minute thinking he’d scored two and that he was off to Leeds.

“I was sitting next to one of my close friends [on the bench] Jordan Teze,” Gakpo says. “He said: ‘It’s in God’s hands if he decides it’s an own goal or not.’ And at the end, it was [given as] my goal, so then it was three. I couldn’t have got a clearer sign.”

Gakpo stayed and, four months and a World Cup later, signed for Liverpool for around €42 million.

In May 2024, as he sits down in his Liverpool home to discuss his time at Anfield and his role with Netherlands at Euro 2024, he looks at what’s been and what’s to come. His new-born son, Samuel, is in another room with his partner, Noa, and Gakpo’s mother, Ank. Memories of his career to date are all around him. He smiles as he remembers that night against Volendam when fate intervened: “It’s worked out, yeah.”

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Cody Gakpo targeting Euro 2024 glory with the Netherlands

Cody Gakpo says the Netherlands team have “high expectations” of themselves heading into Euro 2024.


From Eindhoven to Anfield

Gakpo is talking ESPN through three of his most treasured possessions, which help tell the story of his journey from PSV’s academy to Liverpool. In the background, Lulu, the family cockapoo, is running around barking. Gakpo’s brother and agent Sidney is there, visiting his new nephew. Outside in the garden, two full-size goals sit on perfectly manicured grass.

The first possession is a three-inch wooden hippotammus that goes everywhere with him. A trip to South Korea in 2011 for the Gyeongju International Youth (Under-12) Football Tournament pitted PSV against teams from Mexico, South Africa, Japan and South Korea. They lost the final to Mexico’s Pachuca, but Gakpo won Player of the Tournament and was awarded a glass statue. But, as he was leaving, a member of the South Africa team came up to him and gave him the hippo as recognition for his performance.

“Their perception of life was totally different than ours,” he says. “I remember thinking there was so much more to life than a trophy, and this meant everything to them. I take the hippo everywhere I go, and I really appreciated that gift from them, even more than the trophy.”

It’s clear that football was always in his blood. His father Johnny played football; his mother Ank was a rugby player. On the walls of his bedroom as a youth were posters of his father’s heroes, Pelé and Diego Maradona, the 2010 Barcelona team, and his own local heroes: Phillip Cocu, Ibrahim Afellay, Jefferson Farfan and Arouna Koné, all at PSV.

In fact, Gakpo made his Eredivisie debut for PSV’s first team in February 2018 under the management of Cocu. He was an injury-time substitute for Steven Bergwijn as PSV won 3-1 at Feyenoord and from there he developed into an integral part of the team — playing predominantly just off the left, up front.

“He was 11 years old when he came into my squad, where he grew all the way to the first team,” his former PSV youth coach Twan Scheepers tells ESPN. “That point when he was growing so quickly — first his feet, but also his whole body was growing in all kinds of different ways, so he found that tough. He had some difficulties with coordination with his feet, but then the rest of his body caught up.

“He was determined to become a big football player — he had a dream, and still has that dream. Most of all back then, he was enjoying life, playing football with friends on the streets at grassroots, and youth academy, and enjoying where he was. He was determined to be a big, great player. He loves football and likes developing, challenging himself and wants to get better every day. That all started at an early age to make the dream reality.”

The second keepsake is a Fans’ Player of the Year trophy he was awarded in (he thinks) 2020 or 2021. Then, finally, there’s the armband from one of the first times he captained PSV in the Champions League playoff against Benfica in 2021.

But as Gakpo’s development caught the eye of Europe’s biggest teams, he grew accustomed to the idea that there was life beyond the Philips Stadion. After impressing at the 2022 World Cup for Netherlands, he was on holiday in Dubai, picking through their quarterfinal exit to Argentina on penalties, when he got a call from his brother.

“My brother, who was also my agent, and [my] other agent called me and said there was interest from Liverpool, pretty serious, but I was really calm,” he says. “I’d learned [that] from the previous window. So we just looked at the situation really calmly: if it happens, it happens, if it’s not happening, yeah, it’s not happening. But it went quickly. We came back 23, 24 or 25 [of December]; 25th was personal terms agreed; 26th clubs agreed; 27th, I was there [in Liverpool]. So, it went really fast.

“It was very hard [to leave PSV]. I played there in total, I think with academy and everything together, 17 or so years; lots of friends, lots of good people. But yeah, I think it was just time. That was where I could feel God’s presence as well because it was just in his hands, and it happened so quick. I was so calm, and I was not really stressed about those things. So that was for me also a sign like it’s a God move.”

A source of guidance

Gakpo is the subject of a three-part documentary in the Netherlands called “Psalm 20:4” — a passage from the Bible that reads: “May he give you the desire of your heart and make all your plans succeed.” The forward channels his faith into everyday life and it has had a calming effect in moments of stress.

“It’s a lifestyle to be good to everybody, how to behave, how to react in certain situations and it’s what I try to live by,” he says. “It’s easier said than done, nobody’s perfect, but we try to be.

Memphis [Depay] is a really a religious guy, but it was at the World Cup [where they got together]. We deal with a lot of situations on the pitch, but also outside of the pitch. Everybody [has an opinion] and that can really trigger our emotions and everything. We got together and just spoke about maybe anger or feelings, and what does the Bible say or what does God say about those things? And yeah, that brought us as a group closer to each other, but also we learned something from that as well and [we] try to behave in the same kind of way.”

Netherlands defender Denzel Dumfries spoke to the media at the World Cup about the importance of the group at the time. “In the last few days we have prayed a lot with [Gakpo] and he has shared his faith with us,” he said. “How he finds himself in it. The sessions were very special, that gave me a lot of strength and I’m very grateful.”

Gakpo reads and studies how “we as humans work, how we think, how we react in certain situations,” but also spends his time away from the training ground immersed in self-improvement and football. He prefers not to watch YouTube highlight reels and has been working with his own tactical coach, Loran Vrielink, the founder of Tactalyse. The two have worked together since early in his PSV days.

“It’s a bit like a Zoom call,” Gakpo says. “We look at clips from the previous game and see what I can improve position-wise into the next match. He lives in Spain, he picks clips sometimes, but I can also ask him how [he] sees a certain situation … or position-wise and stuff. But yeah, just trying to improve.”

Vrielink tells ESPN: “Cody is an amazing player who understands what is necessary to perform at the top level. Many players who come to us, they start when they are kind of not performing and they ask okay, how can I perform better?

“Cody, that was not the case. Cody was performing, but he was thinking like, okay, how can I even become a better player? We analyse his whole game, with 300-400 clips per match. We look at all of his technical decisions, and then we discuss that with him to understand why he’s good, how he can become a better player, and also what type of mistakes he’s doing. This all says a lot about his personality, thirst for knowledge and thought-process that he always want to improve and that he does everything he can to become a better player, basically.”

There are also sources of guidance and inspiration in training every day at Liverpool.

“We have Mo Salah who’s really a professional guy with his food and is in the gym very early and after training as well,” he says. “I learn a lot from everybody, but have also learned a lot from situations themselves. I speak to the more experienced players like Virgil [van Dijk], like Mo, like Alisson [Becker], Trent [Alexander-Arnold], Robbo [Andy Robertson], who [have been] there a long time.

“Last season [we had] [Jordan] Henderson, [James] Milner, Oxlade [Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain], so yeah, a lot of experience, a lot of knowledge about football and about life. So in every conversation I could learn something on the pitch and off the pitch. I’m grateful for those moments as well.”


The future

Gakpo has always pursued business interests outside of football with his family in mind. He is involved with a group of athletes — including ex-Brazil left-back Marcelo; Nigeria captain William Troost-Ekong; F1 drivers Lando Norris, Carlos Sainz, Valtteri Bottas; rugby star Maro Itoje and cycling legend Mark Cavendish — in a sports investment firm called APEX. He also has a small property portfolio in the Netherlands.

“I know everybody has heard the stories from former players that when they stop their football, it was difficult to live the same life without the monthly pay,” he says. “I want to build a legacy for my kids and their kids to come, so investment-wise, you have to look at real estate, private equity, start-ups, and, well, just interesting things in general.”

The impact of fatherhood has certainly changed Gakpo’s perception of the world. “I learnt a lot of lessons from my parents,” he says. “So I will teach my son some of them as well. I think the important ones are: just try to be honest, be a righteous person, be kind to one another, take care of your family and one day, look after his brothers and sisters.”

He dedicated his goal in Liverpool’s 4-2 win over Tottenham Hotspur on May 5 to his son, sucking his thumb in celebration after he nodded home a Harvey Elliott cross. One day Samuel will come along to a match and watch his dad score. “That’s going to be very cool,” he says. “Hopefully they can be proud and learn a lot from who I was at that time, both as a person and a player.”

In the immediate future, though, Gakpo has a chance to make his family, and his country, very proud this summer. He will be an integral part of Netherlands’ squad as they seek to win their first men’s Euros title since 1988.

“I think the expectations are high,” he says. “I think we have on paper a very, very good team, with big names. But I think we as a group are tight as well with each other, and I think we expect a lot from each other because we’ve known each other a long time.

“We know what the other is capable of, so we have a lot of expectations on ourselves. I don’t know what the outside world’s perceptions are of us, but we want to achieve the highest possible [target] and that’s winning the Euros. It’s going to be very difficult, but that’s what we aim for.”