After helping Leicester to an unexpected English title, Riyad Mahrez is expected to lead the Algerian renaissance at the Nations Cup, as Maher Mezahi, our man in Algiers, explains.
After playing a key role in Leicester City’s fairy tale run to the English Premier League title last season, becoming the first African to be named the PFA “Player of the Year” – an accolade even the great Didier Drogba never won, in all his years with Chelsea – Riyad Mahrez spent last summer in El Khemis, his father’s village in Western Algeria.
The drive into El Khemis is a particular one – a single serpentine road stretches up and around the cosmopolitan city of Tlemcen, running through sprawling hills and into an isolated valley. Called the “Miracle Country”, the proud, little piece of land earned its moniker by resisting centuries of cultural and military invasion. Mahrez may have been born and raised in Sarcelles, a rundown Parisian suburb but the residents of El Khemis fiercely claim the striker as their own.
“When he visited during Ramadan, he slept on the floor of his grandmother’s house!” a taxi driver chuckled, before adding, “He must have taken a thousand photos.”
Mahrez does not agree with that. “I must have taken three or four thousand photos in less than six days,” he recalls. “I couldn’t go out. I hid and stayed at home. I couldn’t deal with all the people. I know they love me, and I love them too… but I could not speak with the whole village.” Despite his amazing success, football has not changed the lithe winger. That is what makes Mahrez so likeable – he does not seem to understand just how big a deal he has become.
“You should see him with the national team,” said Amir Karaoui, his Algeria teammate. “He sits slouched with his hood over his ears and eats Nutella with a spoon.”
“He eats nothing at dinner,” says goalkeeper Raïs M’Bolhi. “In the evening he will just put some Parmesan on bread. Then he heads back to his room and the entire night, he’ll eat chocolate.”
Ian Stringer, a BBC Radio Leicester journalist, has a similar tale, after Mahrez “crucified” Chelsea at the King Power Stadium in December 2015.
“Just after the match, he was spotted in a local restaurant, eating fries and mayonnaise. Pressure?What…”
Other tales from El Khemis have the Leicester winger presenting congratulatory plaques for Quranic competitions at their thousand-year-old mosque and playing football with the youth, on an artificial pitch tucked into the mountains.
With his face plastered across advertising boards across Algeria, Mahrez is the only Algerian to feature as a Ballon d’Or candidate, besides being the most accomplished striker from the Arab world to feature in English football. His worry-free attitude extends to his playing style – a nimble touch and body feints are traits of the game he learned on the streets. Staying true to that informs his brilliance on the pitch.
“I played in Sarcelles during my childhood. We would play behind apartment complexes. I wouldn’t say our parents weren’t strict, but they would let us play and enjoy ourselves. When you play every day, that improves your technique and your dribbling. That’s why I think technical players come from the street.”
Mahrez would join hometown club AAS Sarcelles as an adolescent, but Mohamed Coulibaly, his youth coach, testifies that Mahrez did struggle to export his game from the streets to the pitch. “At first, his technique bailed him out. But when he started playing eleven-a-side it was more complicated for him, because he was a smaller kid between the ages of twelve and sixteen.”
At 15, Mahrez’s life changed forever. His father, Ahmed, finally succumbed to a heart condition that had been plaguing him for decades.Djilali, Ahmed’s best friend, recounted how the young pair escaped Algeria in the early 1970s after it was determined Mahrez the elder urgently needed a pacemaker.
The operation was not possible in Algeria, so one day Djilali set out to convince Ahmed to illegally immigrate to France, where Riyad was subsequently born.
“I told him, ‘My friend, if you want to live, get a passport, we’ll escape to France, while I figure it out.’
“We took the route that cuts through Oujda [in Morocco] and then, we went to Tangier.
“Overnight I thought he had died. I tried waking him and couldn’t until I threw water in his face. He was in a poor state until we reached Paris.”
Ahmed, who had played amateur football in Algeria for NRB Beni Snous, opted to stay in Paris and got married, as his health improved.
But he never forgot his friend Djilali and continued to visit El Khemis every year, until his death in 2006. Ahmed’s death was particularly tough on Riyad, as he was not only a personal role model, but he also played an important role in helping him grow as a footballer.
“My dad was always behind me. He played for small teams in France and Algeria so he knew what he was saying. I don’t know if I started to be more serious but after his death, things started to happen for me. Maybe in my head I wanted it more.”
In addition to the loss of emotional support, very few coaches, at the early stages of his career, believed that Mahrez’s skill could compensate for the lack of an imposing physique.
“They used to say, ‘He’s too skinny, he’s not strong enough in the tackle. He’s too frail, too light.’ I heard this often.” Mahrez’s first real break came when he left his local club and joined Quimper in the French Fourth Division. He only scored two goals in his first full season with the lower league club, but his swagger caught the eye of several professional clubs. First there was an unsuccessful trial at St. Mirren in Scotland, with the club dithering on whether to award him a contract.
It was then that Le Havre, with a reputation for churning out talented players like Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet, pounced and signed him for their reserve side. On joining the club, Mahrez was put on an €800 per month salary and shared a room with Mathias Pogba, the younger brother of the Manchester United striker, Paul Pogba.
Mahrez was at his best when kindling a synergy with Walid Mesloub, another French-Algerian who played centrally and provided passes that were harbingers of his forages. Several seasons at Le Havre passed unnoticed until Leicester’s head of recruitment, Steve Walsh, travelled to Normandy to monitor Cape Verde international Ryan Mendes. Mendes had an off-match but Mahrez captivated Walsh.
MAHREZ’S ROLE IN LEICESTER’S MAGICAL ASCENT TO THE PREMIER LEAGUE TITLE, AFTER THEIR RETURN TO THE TOP FLIGHT, IS THE STUFF OF GLOBAL LEGEND
“The first time I saw him was on July 27, 2012 when Le Havre played against Arles-Avignon. Riyad was a bit raw but he had a great touch, he could kill the ball dead and go past people. Some of his decision-making wasn’t great and defensively he wasn’t the best. But you could see he had real talent.”
At the time, Leicester were flying high and well on their way to running away with the Championship, a step below the Premier League.
Mahrez joined the club during the January 2014 transfer window and chipped in with three goals and four assists in an impressive five months, displacing the dependable Lloyd Dyer and making the right flank his own.
His role in Leicester’s magical ascent to the Premier League title, in their first season after promotion back to the top flight, is the stuff of global legend.
Algerian football had been waiting for a player of his stature since the retirement of Rabah Madjer and Algeria’s golden generation, which had a memorable performance at the 1982 World Cup in Spain.
Drawn-out comparisons between Madjer’s and Mahrez’s respective generations are the subject of debate over most late-night domino matches on the streets of Algiers.
But with the Africa Cup of Nations in Gabon, the question everyone in the North African nation is now asking is: Can Mahrez and co match what Madjer accomplished and finally win a continental title?
Twenty-seven years have passed since the Fennecs have conquered the African football summit. And if Algeria climb it in Libreville, there is no way that Mahrez will not be a central part of the return to glory.