Riyad Mahrez has won a plethora of accolades, but perhaps his greatest triumph was leading Algeria to victory in the 2019 African Cup of Nations. Michael Renouf looks the career of one of Africa’s leading soccer stars
Only a handful of players have won the English Premier League (EPL) with more than one club; Algerian Riyad Mahrez is one of them.
Riyad was born on 21 February 1991 in Sarcelles, France, to an Algerian father and mixed Algerian and Moroccan-descent mother. It was a middle-class family. His father Ahmed, who was from Beni Snous in the Tlemcen Province near the Algerian border, played for small clubs himself in Algeria and France and always encouraged his son to play football. But he sadly passed away at the all too young age of 54 when Riyad was only 15, and was deprived of the opportunity of watching his son turn into a world-class forward.
Mahrez’s first senior club was the little-known French lower league team, Quimper. During this one season in Brittany he played with Mathias Pogba, older brother of Paul. After rejecting advances from both PSG and Marseille, he moved to Le Havre, where the skinny lad could develop without being in the glare of the media spotlight.
After three successful years in the reserve team, Le Havre II, he transitioned into a first-team player for Le Havre in the second tier of French football.
He would later criticise the league for what he saw as the over-defensiveness of the teams in this division, so it was no surprise when he moved on, although many thought he would be more suited to the more technical La Liga in Spain rather than the physicality of the English game.
Nevertheless, he moved to league championship team Leicester City part-way into the 2013/14 season. (The Championship should not be confused with the EPL – it is the second-highest league overall in the English football league system after the Premier League.)
That season he played 19 games in the league, netting three times – his first goal in English football coming on 19 February when appearing as a substitute against local rivals Nottingham Forest in a 2-2 draw. Mahrez helped his club win the Football League Championship with an impressive 102 points and thus gain promotion to the EPL the following season.
So onwards and upwards to the Premier League. His first goal in the top flight of English football again came in another 2-2 draw, this time at home to Burnley, who had been promoted with Leicester the previous season. 2014/15 was the season of Leicester’s ‘Great Escape’, where they won seven of their last nine games to avoid relegation. He finished the season with four league goals in 30 appearances.
2014 was also the year he made his debut for Algeria, at the end of May in a friendly versus Armenia. This was enough to earn him a place in Algeria’s squad for that year’s World Cup in Brazil. On 15 October the same year, he scored his first international goal for the Desert Foxes against Malawi.
Fairy tale to end all fairy tales
It was the next season (2015/16) when his name would become known throughout the footballing world thanks to his exploits with 5000–1 underdogs Leicester City, who incredibly, won the Premier League in the fairy-tale to end all fairy-tales.
Mahrez was one of the stars of the show. In 37 league appearances he scored 17 goals and provided 11 assists. Included in his goal- scoring feats were four goals in the first three games and in December, away to Swansea, a hat trick in a 3-0 victory.
2016 brought him a plethora of individual accolades, including retaining the Algerian Player of the Year award, being the BBC African Footballer of the Year and the CAF African Footballer of the Year. He was also named in the PFA Team of the Year along with three Leicester teammates including N’Golo Kanté. Additionally, he was the PFA Players’ Player of the Year and the PFA Fans’ Player of the Year for the 2015/16 season – the first Algerian to win either of these awards.
He stayed with Leicester for another two seasons, but rumours often surfaced that he wanted to join Manchester City. Rumour became fact in July 2018 when he headed to the Etihad for £60m, putting pen to paper on a five-year contract.
In his first season wearing sky blue (2018/19) he was often used as a substitute but ended up with three medals as his team completed the domestic treble of Premier League, English Football League Cup and FA Cup – although he was an unused sub in the EFL Cup final and played under an hour in City’s 6-0 win over Watford in the FA Cup final.
However it was on the international stage where the attacking midfielder picked up the trophy that may mean the most to him as he captained Algeria to victory in the Total Africa Cup of Nations for 2019 whilst scoring three goals and making the Team of the Tournament.
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