Riyad Mahrez stands at the top of African Football. From leading Leicester City to the Premier League title to captaining Algeria to the AFCON title, it seems like Mahrez has everything one could ever ask for. His rise to glory wasn’t so easy though, as Malek Shafei details.
Born in Sarcelles, a suburb of Paris, Riyad learned football on the concrete courts that have allowed some of the best French players to develop and make a name for themselves. “It’s a good place where everyone knows everyone,” Mahrez recalls of his old stamping ground. “My early memories of my dad taking me to play football in the club when I was six are happy ones. They are my favourites.”
Unfortunately for Riyad and his family, his father Ahmed died of a heart attack when Riyad was only 15. Ahmed, a former footballer in Algeria and France, was Riyad’s main footballing influence. “He was always with me. He came to every game with me to give me help. He played before for small teams in Algeria and France so he knew what he was saying, so I listened to him. [His death] maybe was the kickstart. I don’t know if I started to be more serious but after the death of my dad, things started to go for me. Maybe in my head I wanted it more.” Mahrez said.
The main critique of Mahrez from youth till now has been his slender physique. Coaches predicted that his perceived weakness would not allow him to make it as a professional. The technical director of his youth club Sarcelles, Mohamed Coulibaly, told L’Equipe: “He was very frail. But he never gave up and that’s paying off. You can see on the pitch that he never hides. From very early on he learned to take responsibilities. He has something more than technique, he has the guts and character that make great players.”
The tricky skills he flaunts now propelled him through the youth ranks, but some feared that he would become another flair player with no end product or footballing intelligence. “He was a street player who had taught himself football in his neighbourhood,” recalled former coach Mickael Pellen. “It was both an advantage and a disadvantage: good because he was an excellent dribbler, comfortable with both feet and already very good at set-pieces, but a disadvantage because on a tactical level he knew nothing.”
The French non-league club Quimper decided to take a chance on him in 2009, and he soon proved his doubters wrong, staking a place in the first team by the second half of the season as they were relegated to the fifth division. His skills caught the eyes of French giants Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille, who offered him deals. Mahrez decided to join Le Havre in Ligue 2, however. “Le Havre was a good choice for me because they have a good youth system.”
Despite setting the fifth division alight with the reserve team, scoring 24 goals in 60 appearances, Riyad would have to wait around two seasons before he got a chance at the first team.
At the beginning of the 2013-14 season, English Championship side Leicester sent a scout to watch Ryan Mendez play for Le Havre. Riyad Mahrez, however, caught the eye of the Leicester’s head of recruitment, Steve Walsh.
“Riyad was a bit raw but he had a great touch,” Walsh later told the Daily Mail. “He could kill the ball dead and go past people. I liked his positivity. Some of his decision-making wasn’t that great and defensively he wasn’t the best, but you could see that he had real talent.”
Leicester made an offer for him in the January window, but Mahrez was hesitant to move to England. “Everybody was saying to me: ‘Riyad, England is not for you, it is too physical, too strong. Spanish football would suit you better.’ So I never thought I would play in England.
One of the funnier anecdotes from his rise to glory was how he found about Leicester, with the young Algerian unaware of the existence of the English second division club. “I didn’t know Leicester,” he shrugged. “In France we didn’t really [know them] because they were in the Championship. I thought they were a rugby club. I was like: ‘I don’t know…’ But then I came here to see the facilities and they were good. I do not regret signing for them, because it’s the best club I’ve ever been at.”
It’s important to recognize the position that both Riyad and Leicester were in when the transfer was made. Mahrez was not in a position to reject Leicester’s proposal, given that he had no offers from Ligue 1 sides. But moving to England, a country where he was led to believe was ‘too physical’ for him, was a risk in itself. Let alone moving to a side fighting for promotion in the ruthless English championship.
For Leicester, the £450,000 move is now hailed as a genius move: arguably one of the best value transfers of all time. But it was a risk for them at the time, with Leicester taking a chance on the relatively unproven winger.
Mahrez, who had grafted and trained religiously to make it, was a perfect fit at Leicester on and off the pitch. Just like Riyad, N’Golo Kanté and Jamie Vardy were renowned hard-workers; with Kanté moving up the ranks in France similarly to Mahrez, while Vardy played his way to the English national team from non-league.
While he wasn’t an interval member of the 2013/14 Leicester side, Mahrez contributed three goals and four assists as Leicester won the Championship and thus earned a promotion to the English Premier League.
Now settled in England, Riyad declared that he wanted to play for the Algerian national team. Born to an Algerian father and Algerian-Moroccan mother, his Algerian heritage always played an interval in his life. “I used to go to Algeria on holiday every year with him and my brother. I have a lot of family there. I lived in France and grew up there and my mum still lives there but my heart is more Algerian.”
Algerian coach at the time, Vahid Halilhodžić, called him up for the World Cup squad after watching him play. “I saw quality. He was technically superior and a sophisticated dribbler, but he had no power. Still, I saw his potential and invited him to the World Cup.”
Halilhodžić described the flack he received for calling up the fleet-footed winger: “I cannot describe what I experienced from the Algerian media after that. There was no common sense in their criticism – some even claimed I took money from Riyad to take him to the World Cup!
“Of course, he was not at the level he is today, but it doesn’t surprise me how good he is in the Premier League. He’s the kind of player that makes a difference. A modern, fantastic player. I knew I didn’t make a mistake in calling him up.”
Mahrez started in Algeria’s opening match at the World Cup, a 2-1 loss to Belgium. Unfortunately, he was dropped for the rest of the tournament as Les Verts made the Round of 16, falling to eventual champions Germany in extra time.
The next season, Mahrez was key to Leicester’s miraculous survival. Bottom of the table for four-and-a-half months between late November and mid-April, the Foxes won seven of their last nine matches to finish 14th.
Despite all of the challenges that Mahrez had overcome, nobody could have predicted what happened in the 2015/16 season. With a new manager who stated that his goal was simply to achieve safety, Leicester were expected to finish mid-table at best.
The dream season for Leicester began on August 8, 2015, when the Foxes beat Sunderland 4-2 thanks to a brace from Mahrez. He scored the winner in their next game against West Ham. Leicester went their first six games of the season unbeaten, Mahrez had scored 5 goals in that run. After their loss against Arsenal in late September, the Foxes went 10 games unbeaten. In that span, Mahrez netted a brace against West Brom before scoring all three goals in their 3-0 win against Swansea in December. Additionally, he scored the winner against the reigning Premier League champions Chelsea, before scoring a brace of penalties against Everton in the next match.
At Christmas, Leicester were first in the league. A year earlier, they were dead last. As we all know, Leicester won the league and Riyad Mahrez was at the heart of it. His double step-overs, long-range finesse curlers, and free-kicks made him a favorite across the world as he netted 17 goals and assisted 11 in the season.
Mahrez was no one-season wonder though. While his performances dipped the next season, Mahrez hit double-digit goals and assists in the 2017/18 season. It shocked many that Mahrez did not cash in on his high-stock and move to a better team as Kanté did. Teams such as Barcelona and Manchester City tried to lure the Algerian to their clubs, but Leicester refused to sell. It was not until the summer of 2018 when he finally left Leicester after Manchester City splashed £60m on him. This made Mahrez the most expensive African footballer and also Manchester City’s most expensive signing, which is a testament to how much Mahrez was valued at the time.
At City, Mahrez has struggled for playing time given the plethora of attacking options Pep Guardiola’s side possess. Regardless, he won the domestic quadruple in his first season with the Blues.
Despite his lack of playtime for club, Riyad Mahrez became even more of a hero for his country when he captained Algeria to the AFCON title in 2019. The best moment was his 95th-minute winner against Nigeria in the semi-finals: a stunning free-kick that won the African Goal of the Year Award. Mahrez and Algeria did the job in the final against Senegal and won the title.
With a Premier League and AFCON trophy to his name, Mahrez has come so far from the concrete jungles of Paris and being rejected by clubs as a teen because of his physique.