As the satisfying sound of the ball hitting the net reverberated around Lille’s Stade Pierre Mauroy, Anwar El Ghazi was already in the midst of his celebration. Having planted the ball beyond Maxime Dupe to seal a 3-0 opening weekend victory for Marcelo Bielsa’s side, the forward marked the occasion by paying tribute to former Ajax team-mate Abdelhak Nouri.
On July 13, the footballing world was left stunned as the 20-year-old suffered a cardiac arrhythmia that has left him with brain damage that the Dutch side has described as “serious and permanent”.
He was playing in a simple pre-season friendly match against Werder Bremen when he collapsed due to the heart attack, prompting a flood of emotion that engulfed the footballing world.
The incident particularly touched everyone connected with the Amsterdam club.
“There was something unique when two or three hundred people went to Nouri’s family house when he was returning from the hospital. The Ajax fans were singing with Muslim fans. What happened to Appie connected different parts of society: it’s the first time we’ve seen that,” Sander Zledenrijk, editor of Ajax Life magazine, told L’Equipe.
“The other night on TV, the mayor of Amsterdam confessed that he had begun to cry in front of these images. Not because of what happened to Appie, even though it’s very sad, but because the emotion brought people together.”
Former team-mate El Ghazi was among those touched. His simple tribute against Nantes involved removing his shirt after scoring to reveal a T-shirt with Nouri’s name number 34 emblazoned across the front of it.
The forward did not look a player celebrating as he paid homage; his eyes were touched with emotion, his brow was knitted and he appeared close to shedding a tear. Had the fates decided otherwise he seemed to say, that could easily have been me.
“That goal was for you, Nouri. We’re still thinking about you and we are still praying,” he Tweeted after the game.
For his troubles, the 22-year-old winger, close to Nouri in age and background as a Dutch-Moroccan, was shown a yellow card by referee Benoit Millot, who applied the letter of the law but failed to do likewise with common sense.
Players are regularly criticised for receiving cautions in such a needless manner, but in this case, El Ghazi’s tribute was a genuine show of emotion. As a result, it was an action widely praised by critics and on social media by fans, who are entitled to show their support by way of banners and flags.
Lille have led an outcry against the booking, asking the French League (LFP) to rescind the caution.
“It was a strong and sincere gesture, which LOSC fully supports. Just like the player, the club would like to lend its support to Abdelhak Nouri and those close to him, but also to Ajax Amsterdam in these difficult moments it’s experiencing,” it published in a statement.
“With regards to this dramatic context that justified the gesture of Anwar El Ghazi, Lille demand, in an exceptional case, the Disciplinary Commission of the LFP annuls the yellow card given to their player.”
For El Ghazi, the furore was worthwhile and the caution a mere footnote to an afternoon on which he played his best match to date for the side he joined in January, gave himself a realistic shot at becoming a key player under new coach Marcelo Bielsa and had the opportunity to express his support to Nouri.
“There has been a lot said about my yellow card. The only thing I want to say about this is the reason why I did it was for Nouri and everyone close to him. I knew what the consequences were and will also accept the yellow card, even in my case, whether it is shelved or not,” he Tweeted.
“My gesture was clear. But finally, this is maybe the sweetest yellow card of my whole football career.”
Due to Ligue 1’s suspension rules, there are unlikely to be suspension ramifications for the forward due to the bookings. To earn a ban, players have to be booked three times in a rolling 10-match period and El Ghazi was only cautioned on three occasions in total during the whole of last season.
Nevertheless, it is the symbolism of the yellow card that rankles. El Ghazi could not in any way have been seen to be spreading a negative political message, inciting the crowd or offering an insult with his action – completely the opposite, in fact.
Instead, the caution stands as an insult to El Ghazi and to Nouri, a symbol of football’s broken ability to make common-sense decisions.
As the world’s most popular sport, it should unite behind a player who chooses to support his friend in such a manner, not condemn him.Published 15 Aug 2017, 15:53 IST