Captain of Algeria during the victorious campaign of 2019, Riyad Mahrez arrives in Cameroon with the firm intention of achieving a historic double. The artist of the round ball has yet experienced an atypical course and a late emergence before reaching the top.
Having a stadium named after him is rather rare during his lifetime. However, at the Nelson Mandela sports center in Sarcelles, in the north of the Parisian suburbs, a field does indeed bear the name of one of the city’s cherished children: Riyad Mahrez, star of Manchester City and captain of Algeria. which he took to the roof of Africa in 2019.
However, the career of the attacking midfielder does not fit into any box. Atypical, he has never gone through the training center of a big club despite his immense talent.
In reality “only one person believed it, it was Riyadh itself,” said AFP Hayel Mbemba, former teammate at AAS Sarcelles, the club where the Algerian international learned his football. “He has an above average strength of character”, assures his friend.
African Premier League stars
“I don’t know how but I will play the World Cup in Brazil”
For Mahrez, the story begins in this club in the Parisian suburbs that he joined at the age of 12. Young teenager, little Riyadh may indulge in his leisure for hours on end, from lawns to vacant lots through the city-stadiums of the Sablons district, he is just an ordinary player in the eyes of recruiters. Admittedly, he has an above-average technical mastery, but this advantage alone is not enough in the largest pool of young talent in Europe. In addition, he is served by a puny physique, which repels clubs.
“Initially, his technique allowed him to get by. But when he switched to eleven-a-side football, it was more complicated for him, because he was late morphologically between twelve and sixteen years old. He was small and n ‘ didn’t have the physical impact required. Because of that, it was a bit difficult for him for three, four years. He was playing in the reserve team. At that time, there was the 14-year-old federal championships, which was the highest level in this age category. Thanks to this great visibility, players were able to join professional clubs. He, on the other hand, was really in the shadows “, remembers Mohamed Coulibaly, technical director of the AAS Teal, interviewed by SoFoot.
In the face of adversity, Riyad Mahrez persists. At the time, he proclaims to whoever wants to hear him: “I will get there, I do not know how, but I will play the World Cup in Brazil”. His educators retorted: “You can’t even play Sarcelles!”, Mohamed Coulibaly told AFP.
During the league title celebration, Riyad Mahrez wore a special “From Sarcelles to The Premier League” pair. 9⃣5⃣ pic.twitter.com/0iGIcYkCvs
— BeFoot (@_BeFoot) May 24, 2021
A self-confidence that ends up paying off. As he approaches his majority, Riyad Mahrez is finally growing physically. He ended up integrating the first team of Sarcelles and revealed himself by dint of scoring important goals and free kicks in promotion of honor, the equivalent of the 8th French division. At the same time, the teenager did not give up his dream of breaking through as a professional. He regularly jumps on a plane or a train to carry out tests all over Europe.
In 2009, at 18, he was finally given his chance. He signed in Quimper, in Brittany, where he played for a year in CFA (4th division) and learned the tricks of the football profession. The start of a steady ascent. The following year, he moved to Le Havre. In the Norman club, he quickly moved from the reserve which plays in CFA to the professional team competing for the Ligue 2 championship.
After four years in Normandy, Riyad Mahrez leaves to try the English adventure with Leicester. A choice that is by no means obvious, since the club is then playing in the Championship, the second English division. At the start, the player is “hesitant”. He “seeks the advice of his friends in Sarcelles and ends up convincing himself to go there,” confides those around him.
A good choice, where the young Franco-Algerian writes his legend: Leicester moved up to the Premier League the following year and was part of the 2016 epic, which led the “modest” Foxes to the title of champion of England , on the nose and beard of the country’s big clubs.
In the process, he signed among the superstars of Manchester City in 2018, won new league titles in 2019 and 2021, and contested the final of the Champions League in 2021.
Indisputable in Algeria
Having dual Franco-Algerian nationality, Riyad Mahrez chooses to represent Algeria, his parents’ country of origin. He was summoned in May 2014 at the age of 23, on the occasion of the preparation course for the World Cup. He catches the eye of Vahid Halilhodzic, the then coach of the Fennecs, who takes him to Brazil. The kid who prided himself on competing in the 2014 World Cup has achieved his dream. A dream which is doubled by an exemplary course: Algeria qualifies for the knockout stages and falls arms in hand against Germany, future world champion.
A journey and an abnegation that he inherited from a drama: “I think of my father who died a few years ago. He must see me from up there and be proud. All I do is also for him. I know it was important to him that I break into football. I would have liked him to be there for us to share it together, but that’s life. When you lose loved ones, you have to move forward. It makes you stronger, “he explained in 2015.
With Algeria also, he will climb the ranks until he recovers the captain’s armband and lift the CAN-2019 trophy in Egypt. A competition that he left his mark on. Man of the match in the semi-final, he is the architect of victory against Nigeria with a brace, including a masterful free kick at the last minute.
Involved in his hometown
However, despite the success and fame, Riyad Mahrez has never forgotten Sarcelles and the Sablons district. Shortly after this success at the CAN, the city councilor received him at the town hall to give him the city medal, under the moved eyes of his mother.
“It was only natural to receive him. We believe that he represents an exemplary success and that he carries the image of the city. This is why we wanted an institutional recognition to tell him that we are officially proud of his career which shows everyone, and especially young people, that the space of possibilities is great when we give ourselves the means. And then he really remained a guy from here “, explains Patrick Haddad.
Riyad Mahrez is involved in the life of the local community. Regularly, he invites young people from AAS Sarcelles to Manchester to attend matches of his club. And, with Steeve Yago, another professional footballer native of Sarcelles, he paid prizes for the winners of the CAN of the districts. And said he hopes to be able to do other things for young people “in the future”.
A future that passes through Cameroon during the “real” CAN: with his family, Riyad Mahrez will try to win a second consecutive trophy while the Algerian selection has not lost since 33 official matches.