Abdelhak Nouri of Ajax (left) suffered permanent brain damage after collapsing during a 2017 pre-season friendlyIt is a Saturday afternoon in Geuzenveld, a quiet suburb on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Three hundred metres away from the main station, children are playing football. On the fence behind one of the goals, a large banner dominates the scene. ‘Appie 4 Ever.’ Geuzenveld is not a touristic part of the Dutch capital. But this playground has sadly become a pilgrimage spot for Ajax fans and football lovers alike. This is where Abdelhak Nouri, known as Appie, learned his first tricks and flicks in football. It was where he emulated Andres Iniesta, Kaka and Ronaldinho. It was where he honed his fine technique and ball control before making it as a professional.”Appie still came back here even after being promoted to Ajax’s first team,” one of the kids says. He points with pride at a large flag depicting one of Nouri’s iconic moments – his first senior goal, on 21 September 2016. Nouri, 22, was one of the most promising footballers of Ajax’s academy. He belonged to the same generation of talent that helped the club reach last season’s Champions League semi-finals. But his career came to a tragic end.He collapsed in a friendly game against Werder Bremen during a pre-season tour in the Austrian Alps on 8 July 2017. He is now in a hospital bed with permanent brain damage.
Ajax later admitted their medical team’s treatment of Nouri was ‘inadequate’Before that fateful match at the tiny Lindenstadion Hippach, about 65km from Innsbruck, Nouri had suffered stomach pains and had not slept well. Conditions in the Alps that day were very hot. Still, he played, replacing Hakim Ziyech after half-time. In the 72nd minute, Nouri slowed and moved gently to the ground, turning back to look up at the sky. It took 10 seconds for the referee to realise that he was down and summon for medical attention. Another 10 seconds passed before the Ajax physio arrived. Fifteen seconds later, the club doctor was at Nouri’s side too. When Ajax striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar panicked, the Werder Bremen players reacted too and the German team’s doctor also rushed on to the pitch. They formed a circle around Nouri. Some players started crying. Others were praying. After three minutes of treatment, the players around began to realise this was not a normal injury. Nouri was suffering cardiac arrest. It had taken longer than expected to understand that. Two local medics arrived and connected a defibrillator around seven minutes after Nouri had collapsed. In the meantime, local doctor Daniel Rainer received a call and rushed to the stadium. “The message I received was: person unconscious on the football pitch. When I arrived, resuscitation was in process and the patient was already defibrillated,” he told Dutch paper De Volkskrant. “The patient had received medication to stimulate circulation. I continued resuscitation and after 13 minutes of treatment, we reached the recovery of spontaneous heartbeat and breathing.” A helicopter arrived to take Nouri to hospital in Innsbruck. His family members would join him soon. It took longer for his dad to come, since he was in Morocco.In hospital, while Nouri was in an induced coma, the first signs were positive – heart and brain tests were OK. But after a few days, when his family had arrived, further tests showed he had suffered serious brain damage.Almost a year later, in June 2018, Ajax admitted that their medical treatment of Nouri was “inadequate”.In a statement, Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar, the former Fulham and Manchester United goalkeeper, said cardiologists studying new evidence put forward by the family found too much time was spent clearing Nouri’s airways. Van der Sar said the club medics had been “insufficiently focused on measuring the heartbeat, circulation, and resuscitation”.A defibrillator should also “have been used sooner”, he said, adding: “Had this happened, it’s possible that Abdelhak would have come out in a better condition. This isn’t certain, but it’s a possibility.”We recognise our responsibility and liability for the consequences of this.”
In the playground that now bears Nouri’s name, a young man playing basketball greets the visitor in Arabic. “As-salamu alaykum,” he says. He is used to seeing strangers, the many people who bring flowers. The Nouri family live just around the corner. His younger sisters are outside, chatting with friends. Nouri is one of seven children.Geuzenveld has plenty of migrant communities. Mohammed Nouri, his father, came from Morocco and for many years worked in a butcher’s not far from Anne Frank’s house in Amsterdam’s trendy Jordaan neighbourhood. “I can still see him playing with a small ball, all around where you are sitting,” Mohammed says, as Rabia, the player’s mother, offers mint tea and Moroccan delicacies. This has always been their home.
Frenkie de Jong (L) and Nouri (r) arrive with their Ajax team mates before the 2017 Europa League final against Manchester United in Sweden. Nouri was not named in the matchday squadIn Mohammed’s phone, with his son’s portrait as its background, there are plenty of pictures of football characters that have paid homage to Nouri. “So much love for him from all over the world, so many people asking for him, so many nice gestures,” he says in grief.Juventus forward Cristiano Ronaldo sent him a ‘Happy Birthday’ video message. Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele played with Nouri’s name and number stitched into his boots. In his first season at Roma, Justin Kluivert chose to wear the number 34 – Nouri’s squad number – as did Manchester City’s Philippe Sandler, Napoli’s Amin Younes and Fiorentina’s Kevin Diks. They were all team-mates of Nouri at De Toekomst, the Ajax academy.The Eredivisie title Ajax won last season – their 34th league success – was dedicated to him. With his dad and his brothers on stage at the victory ceremony, alongside the Ajax squad, the Nouri family was at the heart of celebrations.Nouri had played with the number 34 since his senior debut. Growing up, he shone in many youth international tournaments, always accompanied by his dad. His name had already been shortlisted by several of Europe’s top clubs even at a young age. His vision earned him quick comparisons to Iniesta, one of the players he looked up to. He was always obsessed with attacking football. But for Nouri, being at Ajax – the club he supports – was a dream. He started at seven years old and never left. He was 19 when he first played for the first team, in September 2016. By the summer of 2017, he had been permanently promoted from the youth ranks to Ajax’s first-team squad, having been named player of the season.”I still remember when he was a ball boy and he’d come to see the games with me, always asking first, in a very respectful way, if I wouldn’t mind,” recalls David Endt, who was Ajax’s general manager between 1997 and 2013.”We didn’t need many words. After each good pass, each nutmeg, every special little thing, we’d just stare at each other. ‘Wow! Have you seen that?’ It was a conversation with our eyes.”Nouri was considered among the best talents of his generation – not just in Ajax but across Europe. He was named in the team of the tournament at the Under-19 European Championship of 2016. He always played as a number 10, the one who connected midfield and attack. A hook, as they say in Spanish. In a very special way, he still brings people together. He is Dutch, a proud Amsterdamer. And he is also a Muslim of Moroccan ancestry. Even if his name is Abdelhak, he carries a nickname that is short for Albert. He is an ambassador for a community that is often overlooked or misunderstood.”When he was taken back to Amsterdam, something unique happened,” Endt says.”The neighbourhood became an epicentre of grief, but also a place of communion beyond football colours or religion. You’d see just a grieving community, united, and in a way, it is what he does, he still unites.”‘Stay Strong Appie’, the slogan that became a symbol of hope on social media, is also reflected in the entrance of Ajax’s club museum, next to the Johan Cruyff Arena. Three jerseys bearing number 34 compose the message. A shrine dedicated to him was inaugurated days before Ajax played their first game after Nouri collapsed, a Champions League fixture against Nice. The game was interrupted in the 34th minute, as players and fans clapped in tears. It was Davinson Sanchez’s last game for Ajax in Amsterdam before moving to Tottenham. After the game, he said: “Appie is such a funny guy, always bringing positive energy to the dressing room. That smile that he had… that he has…”And then he paused. “This is something very difficult to understand, such a young professional. It is a blow that life cannot explain.” All of Nouri’s team-mates, along with former players and Dutch officials, visited the house in Geuzenveld when Nouri was brought back to Amsterdam. It was a heartbreaking moment.Two of the best players from his generation, Frenkie de Jong and Danny van de Beek, are among Nouri’s best friends. Van de Beek would spend some nights at Nouri’s house after the accident, next to his friend’s bed, just like when they were kids. When he scored the equaliser against Juventus, in the game that Ajax ended up winning 2-1 in Turin in April, Van de Beek pointed to the back of his jersey in tribute.”I looked at the screen and I saw my goal was in the 34th minute. It had to be him, you have to think,” he said.
Mohammed Nouri no longer works as a butcher. He was suffering too much from a shoulder injury after years of chopping meat, and he has to take care of his son. He now spends 24 hours in the hospital, then comes back home and switches with Nouri’s brothers, Mohammed and Abderrahim, and his mother Rabia. The routine is performed every day of the week. There is always someone next to Nouri, talking to him, trying to communicate.Since Nouri left his coma and gained a low level of consciousness, there have been some indications of improvement in his condition, including very limited communication – eyebrow signs used for answering questions with yes or no. The Nouri family are deeply religious and have faith that he will recover, despite what the science says: that recovery is extremely unlikely but not impossible. Before signing for Barcelona this summer, De Jong visited him in the hospital, to break the news. Every stimulus is positive.The Nouris are also renovating a house to accommodate their son so he can leave the hospital, and are developing the Nouri Foundation to promote sports and integration for people with disabilities.”Here beats an Ajax heart” reads one of the flags placed close to Nouri’s house by one of the club’s fans. In his home city and beyond, Appie will always be revered, and never forgotten.
Nouri’s brother acknowledges and thanks fans who gathered outside his family home in July 2017
Fans gather outside the Nouri family home on 14 July 2017 in Amsterdam
Nouri made 15 senior appearances for Ajax, scoring once and providing three assists
Ajax fans display a giant banner depicting Nouri before a Champions League qualifying third round match against Nice in August 2017