Read it, say it out aloud, repeat it thrice... isn’t that how must of us memorise answers for one of those quirky questions we are sure will pop up for your next Quiz?
That name is the answer to a quite morbid question, the kind that most good quizmasters like to pop out regularly – “Name the 20-year-old footballer who collapsed on a football pitch, was airlifted to hospital and was subsequently diagnosed with having suffered from serious, permanent, brain damage. Hint 1: He played for AFC Ajax. Hint 2: He was of Moroccan origin”
You might think of me as an insensitive git for writing this down the way I did, but think about it, look within yourself and really give a proper think about it. In ten years, no five... no, wait... in a year's time how else will any of us, the casual football fan, remember Abdelhak Nouri?
It is a tragedy, a real one, that a twenty-year-old man, footballer or otherwise, has suffered the fate of almost certainly having to live the rest of his life as a brain-dead - what is that they call those poor unfortunate souls? Ah! Yes – a goddamned brain-dead vegetable. He was no common twenty-year-old, though... this one could kick a ball, and he could do it rather well and that’s why I am writing about him, why you are sat there reading about him.
What makes it a footballing tragedy, is the sheer talent he had in his boots, the vast amount of that fabled quality he possessed – “potential”. As Edwin van der Sar, Chief Executive of AFC Ajax concluded his official statement on the club’s website:
“Abdelhak has such great talent, but unfortunately we will never know how far his star would have reached if this had not happened to him.”
Potential is what earned Nouri a spot in the Ajax academy aged just 8 and it’s what got him starring role for Jong Ajax (Ajax’s second team that plies its trade in the Dutch second tier, the Eerste Divisie) in 2005, a few months after his 18th birthday.
A short (5 ft 7in), frail-looking youngster cut in the mould of the wispy li’l ball-players of yore, it was performance, though, that got him last season’s Eerste Divisie Player of the Season award It’s performance that he earned him a call-up to the Ajax senior squad, that got him 9 appearances in the Eredivisie (where he scored on debut) and 3 in their wonderful Europa League run.
And it’s here we come back to that magic word – “ potential”. After all, It’s those 12 appearances, however brief, that alerted the wider world to his pace, to his dribbling ability, to his knack of producing rare magic, to his sheer talent... to his potential.
If not for the brain damage brought upon him due to his condition of Cardiac Arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat – that mother of all organs beats either too slow, or too fast), he had the potential to be anything... like his 24-year-old club captain Davy Klaassen (who recently joined Everton to much fanfare) or his Jong Ajax teammate Justin Kluivert (who was allegedly told by Jose Mourinho, “I want you, you are a special one, Let’s make a special transfer... One more season, then you come to Manchester and you become my striker. One more season shining at Ajax... then we make history together”).
Nouri won’t be making history – not for the reasons he would have wanted, anyway.
He won’t be celebrated by thousands of beer-swilling fans every weekend, his posters won’t adorn little boy’s walls or their mobile phones. Nobody will break a bone or stretch a ligament trying out one of those implausible, rubbery-boned, tricks he could have been doing week-in and week-out at the Amsterdam Arena, or at the Camp Nou, or at Old Trafford.
He won’t enjoy the glories that football brings with it, and he won’t have to suffer the horrible cynicism the beautiful game carries with it either. He won’t be lambasted by arm-chair critics who would have shouted at him for making three extra-stepovers when only one was needed – thus ‘killing the momentum of the move’ in their expert eyes. He won’t be ripped apart for not having enough about him after assessments made by men who dismiss the qualities of footballers with nothing more than a wave of a hand and a *cluck* of their tongues.
There might a lesson, or two, here for those more experienced, more knowledgeable than me on bettering the process behind the identification, diagnosis, and subsequent treatment, of Cardiac Arrhythmia and other ailments that affect footballers. And they must do all they can to better it.
For most of us though, Nouri was an exceptionally talented midfielder who played 107 matches, scored 23 goals and provided 30 assists for Ajax, Jong Ajax, and the Netherlands U-19 team and now will never play the game again. There ends his footballing story.
Football, though, doesn’t end., doesn’t wait for the grief to come to its own end... it just moves on.
When Manchester United’s Daley Blind – formerly of Ajax, of course – was asked about Nouri he said: “It’s hard to describe how I feel, how the people in Amsterdam and the whole of the football world feels about it. He was such a big talent, and he was a great person as well... I don’t what to say, to be honest. I’m very sad and I wish his family, his friends, and everyone who is involved with him and standing close to him all the best and all the strength that they need...”
When asked about how hard it would be to focus on training, he replied: “Of course. Makes it a bit harder though because something happened like that... football is not important anymore... football is something we all love, but this is something.. F***... this goes further and what I say is that football is not that important anymore if something happened like that”. Then, without as much as a pause to take a breath, the interviewer asks him how physically draining it is to train in the California heat, and Daley had to give the regular PR-speak answer, “it’s been a good start to the season”.
Is football not important anymore? Of course, it is, Daley. Of course, it is. For all your good intentions, for all our good intentions, football is the only thing that matters in the end. In the interview, it’s the casual segueing from the tragic to the mundane routine that makes it even more in jarring, isn’t it?
Bill Shankly was right – in a way far more cruel that he would have ever imagined it – football is not a matter of life and death. It’s much more. Cruel, perhaps, but whether in football or in everyday life... how else would we all continue smiling, sharing our love, being happy... living our lives... if we didn’t simply move on?
For Mr. and Mrs. Nouri (I can’t even find their first names online, because... dammit, who cares now, eh?), though, there can be no moving on. May Allah give them strength, may our prayers, to whichever God we choose, help Abdelhak perform a miracle and return – not to football, f*** football – to a normal life where he can see his parents and his loved ones whenever he wants to.
That's all we can do, neh? Offer our prayers and remember the footballing talents of a boy who had just become used to being called a man.
For f***s sake, he is only twenty.