What memories does the number 34 conjure up for you?
Are they fond memories of Ryan Bertrand’s triumphant Champions League debut when he shone as a left wing-back during Chelsea’s 2012 final win over Bayern Munich? Or is it Granit Xhaka’s shambolic switch from number 29 to occupy Arsenal’s present 34 because the number has a “special meaning”?
Well for this group of European starlets, 34 is more than just a number – it is a symbol of support and solidarity.
In 2017, Ajax midfielder Abdelhak ‘Appie’ Nouri suffered a heart attack during a friendly against Werder Bremen that left him in a coma for more than a year and with permanent brain damage. The now-21-year-old showed immense talent and potential during his time at Ajax and rose through the academy, which he joined in 2005, to make a handful of first-team appearances.
After Nouri’s retirement Ajax renamed their ‘Talent of the Future’ award after him but it is his former teammates who have carried the torch across the continent in his honour.
Former Ajax men Justin Kluivert, Philippe Sandler, Amin Younes and Kevin Diks have all requested to wear the same number 34 shirt that Nouri wore and, while the number currently remains vacant at the Dutch club, it has not been retired.
Number retirement has often been used as a means to pay homage to club greats but these young players are using imitation as an effective way of spreading the message across Europe. But who are they?
Justin Kluivert (Roma)
The kid has good genes, being Patrick Kluivert’s son and all, but Justin Kluivert has needed no help in making a name for himself since making his debut for Ajax as a 17-year-old.
His performances for the Eredivisie outfit earned him a move to Italian giants AS Roma last year and he has also made his international debit for the Netherlands – but he has not forgotten about his friend.
Kluivert spent almost a decade in the Ajax academy with Nouri and upon joining Roma he requested the No 34, a number he still wears, and dedicated his first goal for his new club to his former teammate.
💛❤️🐺 #ForzaRoma pic.twitter.com/NruKWgLt74
— Justin Kluivert (@justin_kluivert) October 3, 2018
— Justin Kluivert (@justin_kluivert) August 24, 2018
Philippe Sandler (Manchester City)
One of the very few young players that has been able to earn playing time at Manchester City this season, Philippe Sandler was handed his debut by Pepe Guardiola in a 7-0 FA Cup win over Rotherham United.
Although he has no senior appearances for Ajax to his name, Sandler played with Nouri at youth level for both club and country from a young age.
Shortly after joining Manchester City Sandler announced on Twitter that we would be wearing 34 in honour of his friend and “brother”.
What time. With my brother Nouri in @AFCAjax times. Stay strong my friend ❤️#34
— Philippe Sandler (@PhilippeSandler) October 4, 2018
Hi guys, I'm going to inform you that I'm going to wear the number 34 shirt, in honor of my friend Appie
Stay strong Appie, I'll always remember you my brother ❤️🙏🏻🤜🏻🤛🏻
— Philippe Sandler (@PhilippeSandler) August 15, 2018
Amin Younes (Napoli)
Slightly older than the other names on this list, Amin Younes came through the Borussia Monchengladbach academy and joined Ajax in 2015.
The now-25-year-old German arrived just as Nouri was making his breakthrough into the first team with the pair playing together as Ajax finished runners up in the 2017 Europa League.
In 2018 Younes moved to Napoli and in December made his debut wearing 34.
Don't know what to say.. One of the saddest days of my life! #StayStrongAppie ♥️ pic.twitter.com/5BhrGKBtQ3
— Amin Younes (@AminYounes11) July 13, 2017
Kevin Diks (Fiorentina) and others
Defender Kevin Diks led the way to Italy before Kluivert and Younes made their moves when he signed for Fiorentina from Vitesse Arnheim in 2016.
Diks has played with Nouri at youth level for the Netherlands and, upon joining the Italian club, requested to wear the number 34.
A popular and talented footballer, Nouri’s story touched the football world with many footballers and fans showing support for someone they cared evidently about deeply.
Timothy Fosu-Mensah, Kevin-Prince Boateng and Ousmane Dembele are just a few of the footballers who have shown their support without changing their squad number.
Their public actions have helped draw attention to a tragic story and will help to ensure that Nouri is not forgotten as football and friends move on.