Ajax’s Nouri wary of pitfalls of fame
They had it all. Money and its glamorous trappings, growing fame, and the football world seemingly at their feet. But then they blew it.
The list of gifted young players who never made the grade despite early acclaim is long and includes Freddy Adu, Fabio Paim, Federico Macheda and Giovani Dos Santos to name but a few.
They were expected to one day become Ballon d’Or contenders but instead now languish in Europe’s lower divisions.
“You should never think that you are there, that you have made it, because it’s only just the beginning”
Ajax Amsterdam’s wonderkid Abdelhak Nouri is adamant that he won’t join that starry collection of sad tales of what might have been. He knows that talent alone is not sufficient to go all the way.
“I won’t make the same mistakes, don’t worry,” says the 18-year old who is considered by many as the big hope of Dutch and European football.
Ajax are blessed with a number of youngsters with tremendous potential but there is no doubt Nouri the jewel in the crown and is already creating waves in the Netherlands.
“The spotlight and adulation from fans? I don’t care,” he told me. “I stay normal. I know that I always have to train hard, work hard, always be myself and of course stay with my feet on the ground.
“You should never think that you are there, that you have made it, because it’s only just the beginning.”
Spain or England one day
Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, Olympique Marseille and Manchester United are all reportedly keen on securing the his services as they look to bolster their midfield options for next season, but Nouri is taking things step by step.
“My dream is to play at Ajax first, play good, and of course I want to be always the best player of my team. From there I’d like to go to Spain, England or France to a big club one day.”
“Stam always wants to help you. He nurtures you on and off the pitch. If you do something wrong, he says it to you but in a good way”
But that day, he’s alluding, is still far away.
In footballing terms, many liken him to Barcelona superstar Andrès Iniesta, with vision, great ball control, trickery, shooting ability, a great first touch and pace.
He is also blessed with the game management skills of a veteran, an eye for goal and intelligent movement.
Needless to say, the Adus and Machedas of this world also had many of these things. But perhaps they lack some of the other attributes Nouri has in abundance: humility, a strong personality and the right mindset. He’s also surrounded by the right people.
Ajax is run by world-renowned former stars such as Dennis Bergkamp, Marc Overmars, Edvin van der Sar, Frank and Ronald de Boer, so Nouri knows where to turn should he ever struggle with an issue.
To help him achieve his ambitions, he trains under the tutelage of former Manchester United and AC Milan legend Jaap Stam, now the Ajax under-21s manager.
Now 44, the defender was propelled to global stardom after winning the treble with Manchester United in 1999. However, he was a man watched by millions but known by few.
As a player, he was every strikers’ nightmare – known for his tenacious tackles, electric pace and forbidding look. He was a leader and a disciplinarian on the field.
“Can Nouri eventually become the national team’s new fulcrum? Many in Holland believe he can”
Off the pitch, he was intensely private, and getting an interview out of him was an almost impossible mission for journalists. So what is Stam really like? Nouri is well placed to offer an insight.
“He’s a good person, he always wants to help you. He nurtures you on and off the pitch. If you do something wrong, he says it to you but in a good way and not in a bad way.
“You learn a lot from him. How we have to pressure and how we have to defend. Off the pitch he is also a great person. He always helps you.
“As a player I liked him too. Very aggressive. He was a great player, I’ve seen videos of him on YouTube… I liked him”, he said.
The mighty have fallen
Ajax Amsterdam once belonged to football’s aristocracy but in recent years have found themselves in a seemingly irreversible decline.
Monetary issues coupled with a lack of outstanding players coming through its famed youth system, coupled with the low standards of the Dutch Eredivisie, have seen Holland’s most loved and loathed club vanish from the European map. The once-mighty have fallen.
“Nouri doesn’t embrace the compliment. He knows that Iniesta is a legend he’s a long way off from emulating”
As have the Dutch national team who finished fourth in their Euro 2016 qualifying group, missing out on this summer’s tournament in France.
The Netherlands’ struggles have raised a few eyebrows across Europe. It wasn’t that long ago that they were just a penalty shoot-out away from reaching the 2014 World Cup final, and they contested the final itself in 2010.
Can Nouri eventually become their new fulcrum? Can he be the man to build the team around? Many in Holland believe he can.
Stalwarts such as Arjen Robben, Robin Van Persie and Rafael Van der Vaart are not getting any younger, and the academy graduate is by many regarded as a future pillar of the ‘Oranje’ alongside Davy Klaassen, a player Nouri rates highly.
“Klaassen is such a great player. He has the potential to become even better. He’s 22, very young, and he’s already captain at Ajax. It’s unbelievable. Wait a few years and he’ll play for a big, big club.
“However , I don’t know if I can be part of Holland’s revival. I will look step for step, there’s still far for me. It’s bad that they haven’t qualified [for Euro 2016] but maybe next time they will. With me? I don’t know.
“Nouri constantly references the fact that his career has only just started”
“That said, I am not going to support anybody at the Euros. My heart only beats for Holland. Five years ago, they reached the final of the World Cup. It was unbelievable…we were so close.
“My idol Iniesta scored the winner for Spain. He is such a great player. But at that moment I was not for Iniesta.
“People compare me to him because of the pace and dribbling, but I don’t know… I have to work hard to become like him,” he insisted.
There lies another difference between Nouri and those young players who never achieved their youthful promise. Some of them would have embraced the compliment. Nouri, on the other hand, doesn’t. He knows that Iniesta is a legend he’s a long way off from emulating.
If you were to describe him, the words that come to mind are humble, ambitious and single-minded. He is also already adept at handling the media and takes their attention in his stride.
Even at just 18, it feels as if Nouri knows how to deal calmly with everything that’s surely coming his way if his progress on the pitch continues.
Wait a few years and he’ll be the journalists’ most wanted man. For the time being, his fame is confined to the Netherlands but that won’t be the case for long.
Nouri constantly references the fact that his career has only just started. Unlike the Adus and Paims who felt they had ‘arrived’ after signing their first professional contract, Nouri doesn’t.
Stay humble, work hard, never think you are there – that is his mantra.
Yes, that list of talented young players who seemed to have it all before fading away will always grow longer – but Nouri’s name won’t be on it.