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Riyad Mahrez: The street-schooled dreamer whose ambition knew no limits

Tears trickled down the cheeks of a skinny 18-year-old as his manager broke the news. The young Riyad Mahrez wasn’t expecting this: a teenager, hundreds of miles from home, seeing his dreams of becoming a footballer snatched away.

It was 2009 and Quimper, an amateur team in France’s fourth tier, had decided that the tricky winger, who just under seven years later would be leading the most unlikely of Premier League title assaults with Leicester City, wasn’t good enough for them. Or so it seemed. 

They said: ‘We can’t [sign you], because we’d have to give you a good contract and we don’t know if you deserve that’

Manager Ronan Salaun, a wily former pro, had liked what he’d seen of Mahrez on a July trial day featuring more than 20 other players, but he had been fighting a losing battle trying to convince the club’s powers that this spindly young wideman was worth the bare minimum €750-per-month contract. By September, however, after he’d been playing for a month, they’d caved. Mahrez was the only player Quimper signed from that trial day.  

The Algeria international recalls that period vividly when FourFourTwo meets him at the King Power Stadium, the setting for many of the 25-year-old’s dazzling highlights as one of the Premier League’s standout players this season.  

“They said: ‘We can’t [sign you], because we’d have to give you a good contract and we don’t know if you deserve that’,” Mahrez recalls with a knowing smile. “I’d been with them for one month by then – I didn’t know how they could say that. They didn’t say it in the beginning. I had got used to playing with the team. They said they wanted to keep me but would have to check with the boss to see if he agreed. They spoke with him… and he did.”

Learning on the streets

Mahrez joined Quimper alongside Mathias Pogba, younger brother of Juventus dynamo Paul and future Crewe Alexandra striker, who became his flatmate in an apartment provided by the French club. First, though, Mahrez was sent to play with their seventh-tier B team. It seemed they still weren’t entirely convinced. 

“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.”

I used to play with older boys, always. When I was 15 or 16 I’d play with 20-year-olds, and when I was 20, maybe with 25-year-olds. I never thought that I couldn’t be a footballer. Never

Mahrez’s unquestionable technical ability had seen him this far, but Quimper were concerned about his slight frame and knew he needed toughening up. To Mahrez, it was merely a mildly annoying continuation of what doubters had always told him. 

“I used to play with older boys, always,” the Foxes trickster tells FFT. “When I was 15 or 16 I’d play with 20-year-olds, and when I was 20, maybe with 25-year-olds. It helped me. It does not make me sad or anything, looking back. 

“How did I prove them wrong? Just with my ability, my quality. They would say those things, then we’d play a game, I’d play well and they’d change their opinion. I used to play a lot in the city and it helped me. I’m just confident, and happy. I never thought that I couldn’t be a footballer. Never.”

Mahrez needed only the second half of the 2009-10 season to stake his claim in Quimper’s first team. They were relegated to the fifth tier, but his personal improvements hadn’t gone unnoticed. Le Havre’s reserves played in the same league, and signed him that summer. Yet, despite 13 goals in his debut season for the second-stringers, it would be another 18 months before he got a proper sniff of Ligue 2 with their first team. The teenager would have to be patient again.  

A father's wishes

Mahrez was born in Sarcelles, a greying suburb north of Paris, to an Algerian father and Moroccan mother in February 1991. Ten miles from the capital’s centre, it’s known for its high migrant population as a popular settlement for those fleeing the Algerian War in the 1950s and ’60s, but its streets would also shape Mahrez into the fleet-footed Fox he is today. 

“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.”

Tragically, when Mahrez was only 15 he – and his mother and three siblings – lost his father Ahmed to a heart attack. As a former player with minor clubs in Algeria and France, Ahmed Mahrez had been his son’s only true footballing influence when he was growing up.

“It definitely affected me because I was 15, still young,” Mahrez remembers. “Then, when you have only one parent, it’s difficult. But it made me stronger. It affected my football positively, because it gave me more ambition. He wanted me to be a professional.” 

Recently, a video emerged on social media of a 17-year-old Mahrez showing off his skills to a camera-happy friend. Immediately featured is the double stepover that has bamboozled his Premier League opponents all season. “The other kids didn’t hate me for my skills – they just kicked me instead,” the Franco-Algerian chuckles.

Mahrez joined AAS Sarcelles in his early teens. Back then, he was just one of many skilful youngsters in his area, representing the B team and generally staying in the shadows. 

“Initially his technique allowed him to escape,” former coach Mohamed Coulibaly revealed. “But it was more difficult for him between 12 and 16 because he was late developing. He was small and had no physical impact.”

Even now, you wouldn’t think Mahrez has filled out much – those magic legs of his look skinny enough to snap like breadsticks at any moment

Even now, you wouldn’t think Mahrez has filled out much – those magic legs of his look skinny enough to snap like breadsticks at any moment – but there are two important things that he’s always had in spades: confidence, and an insatiable desire 
to make it in football. Mahrez wasn’t bluffing when he told FFT he was never worried about doing so – he used to amuse his friends by telling them how he’d play for Barcelona one day.

A promotion to Sarcelles’ senior team was just reward for the late-night sessions spent playing in the local indoor centre way past lights-out. Another former mentor, Guy Ngongolo, recalls how Mahrez would often still be kicking a ball around at 4am. “Yes, yes,” Mahrez grins, looking up as if picturing the carefree scene. “I used to play on the indoor football pitches with my friends, shooting around. We really would play that late.”

"He was a bit raw, but you could see he had real talent"

Leicester weren’t even watching Mahrez the first time they noticed him playing for second-tier Le Havre in July 2012. They had been looking for a winger, but had actually gone to spy on Ryan Mendes, then 22, who also wound up in the East Midlands eventually thanks to this season’s loan at Nottingham Forest from parent club Lille.

Le Havre lost their opening game of the season 2-1 and Mahrez was taken off in 
the 73rd minute, but the 21-year-old had done enough to pique the interests of Leicester’s head of recruitment, Steve Walsh (not to be confused with the former Foxes centre-back and captain). 

“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.”

Walsh sent his chief scout, David Mills, to watch him twice, before heading across 
the Channel himself to cast an eye over Mahrez one last time. The man credited 
with recommending Gianfranco Zola, Didier Drogba and Michael Essien to Chelsea had seen more than enough. 

In January 2014, well on their way to a top-flight return after a decade away, Leicester made their move for around £450,000. At the time it was a calculated risk, just like each of Mahrez’s previous transfers. When the Foxes came along, nobody in Ligue 1 had been willing to take a chance on him. 

“I had some teams interested but no real offers,” Mahrez admits. The young Parisian had come off the back of his finest season yet in Ligue 2, with four goals and six assists in 34 appearances as Le Havre finished sixth, enjoying his first proper run in the first team. Six months into the following campaign, the move to England was as much a gamble for him as it was for his new club. 

I didn’t know Leicester. I thought they were a rugby club

“I didn’t know Leicester,” he shrugs. “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.”

Championship, 2014; Premier League 2016?

What’s happened since has been nothing short of staggering. After helping the Foxes seal the Championship title in a dominant second half to 2013-14, Mahrez showed flashes of his ability last season as Leicester ensured their Premier League status with a memorable late-season surge to safety. But he was also often wasteful in front of goal and suspect defensively. Not this time around.

“Fantastic,” says a beaming Mahrez when we ask him to describe a season in which his jaw-dropping contributions have set up one of English football’s most exciting title races. “I speak about the whole team, because I don’t like to speak about just me. This is Leicester’s best season ever and we just need to keep going. We have the quality and we have the confidence, then when you start winning games you gain even more confidence. That’s how football goes.” 

Collectively Leicester have captured the imagination of neutrals, but individually Mahrez has stolen the show. Two days after FFT’s visit, his deft dribbling proves impossible for Manchester City to cope with: inside three minutes he wins the free-kick from which he lays on Robert Huth’s first goal, then he effectively kills off the game just after half-time by tying Martin Demichelis in knots and firing the ball past Joe Hart. 

All season long he has made it look easy to embarrass top-flight defenders, but why the sensational improvement? 

“More experience, maybe?” he suggests sheepishly. “More confidence, too. For me, when I go onto the pitch it’s about enjoying myself – I want to take pleasure in playing. But now, when you’re playing for a place in the top four, you can have fun but you also have to think of the team as well. You can’t just be thinking about yourself.”  

It’s a mentality that was first instilled into Mahrez by Nigel Pearson, then hammered home by his managerial successor Claudio Ranieri, who has allowed Mahrez the freedom to express himself. “He asks me to be compact beside my team-mates [when the opposition have the ball], and then after that I can do what I want,” Mahrez reveals. “He’s very nice away from the pitch, but if you don’t work hard on it, he’s not! We have to run, but we’re at the top of the league because we run. When it’s for the top four, I don’t mind!” 

Last season, Chelsea’s Eden Hazard won the PFA Player of the Year award having netted 14 goals and provided nine assists. Mahrez had surpassed those figures by early February as his contributions in the biggest games continued, having either scored or supplied goals in games against West Ham United, Southampton, Spurs, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City. 

Key to this run has been his partnership with Jamie Vardy, whose incredible strike against Liverpool – Mahrez finding his team-mate with a searching ball and the striker powering a first-time shot past Simon Mignolet – summed up Leicester’s season in a nutshell. Staggering. Brilliant. Bonkers. 

“We just know each other’s game now; I know how and where to find him,” Mahrez says. “I’ve played with him now for two and a half seasons, so it’s become much easier. But there’s no competition between us! If Jamie scores then it’s good for the team, and if I score it is, too. Everybody’s happy.” 

Mahrez and Vardy are joined by the indefatigable N’Golo Kante as integral members of Leicester’s title charge, and all three have played in the seventh tier or below at some stage of their careers. Mahrez and former Caen enforcer Kante, who both grew up in urban Parisian suburbs and blossomed late, faced off in Ligue 2 two seasons ago.

“Yeah, I remember that,” says the winger. “I thought he was a good player but I didn’t know he was quite this good.

“Maybe we don’t have the same level of tiredness as guys who started at a club like Leicester at 14, training every day, having to be somewhere at certain times every day. We came from non-league, so it was easier. It helps some players. It helped me; maybe it helped Vards and N’Golo, too.”

It’s not all been peaches and cream for the Algerian maestro, though. Two crucial missed penalties in draws against Bournemouth and Aston Villa in January were a true test of character. Afterwards, Ranieri revealed that Mahrez would take a step back from spot-kick duties – or so went the narrative back then.

“No, no… if we had another penalty, I would have taken it,” Mahrez insists. “He said: ‘Maybe you shouldn’t take the next one’ and I agreed. But then I thought about it and went back to him to say: ‘No, you know what? I’m going to take it.’ He said: ‘OK, if you’re sure’.” 

He didn’t get that opportunity, as it turned out – Vardy drilled home the next spot-kick, against Arsenal – but Mahrez’s response to missing is just another example of his unerring mental strength. And yet, despite everything, he refuses to budge on his previous assertions that Leicester won’t shock the world and lift the Premier League trophy in May. So what’s the big ambition at the end of it all, then? 

Sometimes we think about the Champions League, but I just want to take things game by game. Maybe when there are four or five matches left I can dream, but not yet

“Just to get Leicester into the Champions League and play some good football,” the winger concludes. “I still don’t think we can win the league title.” But why not? “Because I think that maybe if I keep saying that then we will stay first,” he smirks. 

Inside, he’s still just that little boy dreaming of playing football for a living, making his father proud and telling anyone who listens that he’ll play for Barcelona. Maybe, just maybe, he might once again come good on his promise. While some may doubt that Leicester City can go the distance in the Premier League title race, nobody is doubting Riyad Mahrez any more. 

This feature first appeared in the April 2016 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe!

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