On the first floor of a modern office block in Amsterdam, and in the shadows of the stadium where Abdelhak Nouri lived his dreams, the eldest of the Ajax midfielder’s six siblings delivers a brave and moving message. “Being angry doesn’t help,” Abderrahim Nouri says. “Being sad doesn’t help. Crying all day doesn’t help. Being positive helps. Praying for him helps. When I’m next to his bed, talking with him, saying good things to him, those things help.”
Speaking eloquently and emotively for more than an hour, Abderrahim has been reflecting on the tragic chain of events last summer that left his 20-year-old brother, who was one of the most talented young footballers in the Netherlands, with severe and permanent brain damage.
Nouri, or “Appie” as he is commonly known, collapsed on the pitch during a pre-season friendly against Werder Bremen in July and remains in a low level of consciousness in a hospital in Amsterdam, in the hearts and minds of everyone in the city and permanently surrounded by the people that love him most. Every day and every second of the last five months, a member of his family has been at his bedside. “We’re with my brother 24-7,” Abderrahim says.
As light turns to dusk at the end of a bitterly cold afternoon, Abderrahim talks at length about the inner strength that the family draw from being devout Muslims and how their faith has helped them to find comfort and relief throughout such a traumatic experience, yet their pain is never far from the surface.
“Yesterday someone brought an enlarged photo in here of my brother in his playing kit, in a game against Feyenoord, and even the photo was difficult to see,” Abderrahim says. “If I watch videos of Abdelhak playing, it’s only the first 10-15 seconds and then I can’t watch any more, it’s too difficult.”
Abderrahim prefers reliving memories in his mind. He can still picture his youngest brother running rings around children almost twice his age, despite being “so short that the ball was up to his knees”, and performing the “unbelievable skills” that were practised for so long that his parents had to “beg him to come home”. Even then “Appie” wanted to take the game to bed with him. “He’d sleep with his football shoes on,” Abderrahim says, smiling.
Precociously talented, Nouri signed for Ajax at the age of seven and more than a decade later was still playing with the same joy and freedom that characterised those early years. A wonderfully gifted playmaker of Moroccan descent, Nouri made football fun to watch – partly because he looked as if he was having so much fun himself. Technically superb, only 5ft 6in, and capable of exquisite eye-of-the-needle passes, Nouri had an astonishing repertoire of flicks and tricks that bamboozled opponents and left even the Ajax coaches open-mouthed.
“An incredible player,” says Wim Jonk, the former Holland international, who coached Nouri at Ajax’s academy. “If you ever saw an Ajax game, everybody was talking about Appie because his skills were so different to all the others. He was so creative but also entertaining the fans and that was what people liked. For him, it was second nature to act like that, because he was just playing like he was playing on the street.”
Nouri’s reputation preceded him within Ajax and beyond. All the top clubs in Europe courted him as a youth player and the Ajax supporters were singing his name before he made his debut. When Nouri did finally get his chance, from the substitutes’ bench against Willem II in the KNVB Beker (Dutch FA Cup) in September last year, he jinked his way past a few players, won a free-kick on the edge of the area, politely asked Lasse Schone, the set-piece specialist and a Danish international in his thirties, if he could take it, and dispatched the ball into the bottom corner.
Yet what Nouri could do on the pitch is only part of his story. His warm, infectious personality shone through in social media clips that attracted hundreds of thousands of viewers, and behind the boyish smile there was a layer of humility and modesty that Abderrahim still marvels at. “He could play amazing for Jong Ajax [Ajax reserves, who play in the Dutch Championship], the crowd went crazy and so did I. It seemed impossible the things he was doing on the field, and afterwards I was like: ‘How can you do that?’ But he’d just say, shyly: ‘I can play better.’”
The Ajax fans adored him and Nouri loved them. After beating Lyon 4-1 in the first leg of their Europa League semi-final last season, a huge crowd gathered outside the stadium and serenaded all the players, including Nouri, despite the fact that the teenager had been an unused substitute. Stepping forward to acknowledge the Ajax supporters, Nouri looked like a picture of happiness as he smiled and applauded before making a heart shape with his hands.
As a player, his potential was huge. Within Ajax there was a long-held view that he would go right to the top and Jonk tells an interesting story about the day he made that point to Nouri. The conversation came about after the one and only occasion that Jonk can remember Nouri being reluctant to play in a match. Looking back, Jonk suspects it had something to do with the fact that the youth fixture was straight after a Champions League under-19 game and that the midfielder would rather have been turning out for Jong Ajax at a higher level.
Either way, it was totally out of character for Nouri, who went on to play in the match and scored “an incredible goal” as well as setting up two others. A couple of days later, in the canteen at Ajax’s training ground, Nouri asked to speak to Jonk and apologised. The two embraced and Jonk, who left Ajax a couple of years ago, felt compelled to tell Nouri just how highly he rated him. “He hugged me,” Jonk recalls. “And I said: ‘Appie, just open your eyes. For me, with your skill and your ability, you are the new Iniesta.’”
The Guardian Sport