Riyad Mahrez: A champion's coronation
During the final Premier League match of the 2020/2021 season, Riyad Mahrez wore generic whited-out boots with an italicised phrase across the instep: “From Sarcelles to the Premier League”.
The tagline was one of several ways the 30-year-old winger highlighted his path to the summit of world football.
Mahrez was born and raised in the rough-and-tumble Parisian suburb of Sarcelles, but it is in western Algeria, in the village of El Khemis, where his story truly begins.
Capping off 2021 with a UEFA Champions League trophy would be a coronation for the mercurial winger
The village, with a population of a couple thousand, is nestled into an isolated valley, just 30 kilometres from the Moroccan border and is shouldered by grassy hills and lush streams.
Its inhabitants know Riyad Mahrez well. He was the son of Ahmed, the footballer, who played amateur football for a domestic club.
Ahmed’s life changed when he developed a heart condition that necessitated urgent care that he could only find in France.
He left El Khemis incognito, accompanied by one friend and would only return after settling in the outskirts of Paris.
Ahmed passed away in 2006, due to a heart attack, and Mahrez almost always credits him for motivating him throughout his career.
“After my father’s death in 2006, he became my source of motivation. I wanted to do everything in life for him. It is a shame that he is not around to see what is happening now,” the footballer told RMC Sport in a video call, indicating that he was playing the best football of his career.
This year was highly successful for the Algerian, who already captured a League-Cup double with Manchester City.
Capping off 2021 with a UEFA Champions League trophy would be a coronation for the mercurial winger chasing the last realistic team trophy that has continued to evade him.
“It’s a dream. Since I was a baby, since I was young, a young teenager, [I’ve been] watching this type of final – that’s why it’s special,” he told Manchester City’s club website.
“It means a lot because you remember where you come from and you’re thinking, ‘Wow! It’s a good achievement.’”
A Cinderella story
Most professional footballers dream of winning the likes of the Champions League, but Mahrez’s rags to riches tale truly has the makings of a cinderella story.
Take, for instance, the curious anecdote widely circulated a few years ago of when Mahrez was climbing the ranks of amateur football and trying to make it professionally.
Finding it difficult to breakthrough in France since he did not start playing football in a traditional academy, a 17-year-old Mahrez managed to find a trial at St. Mirren FC, a small club in Scotland.
According to BBC Scotland, the intermediary that helped him get the trial told the club that Mahrez was, “A clever and technical player for his age; good dead ball exponent; but needs to eat more porridge.”
Mahrez scored 7 goals in 4 games in Scotland, but when it became apparent that he would not be signing a professional contract in the imminent future, he took a bike from his hotel and rode to the train station before flying back to France without telling a soul.
Mahrez’s rags to riches tale truly has the makings of a Cinderella story
It really was not until he signed with Leicester City in 2014 that football fans managed to glean a glimpse of Mahrez’s potential. After a shockingly successful season propelling Leicester to a league title in 2015/2016, Mahrez became the first African to win the PFA Player of the Year.
However, Leicester was more of a counter-attacking side. Alongside workhorses such as N’Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater in midfield, Mahrez could shirk petty defensive responsibilities and instead ensure he was appropriately stationed within the opposing half-spaces to spark a counter-attack.
Moving to Manchester City not only indicated a change in culture, competition and expectation, but it was also a massive change in tactical playing styles. Pep Guardiola demanded much more of his record signing off of the ball.
It took about a year of adaptation to acclimate to Guardiola’s philosophy, but even in that tumultuous first season in Manchester, Mahrez showed a knack for scoring some very important goals – including a go-ahead goal in The Blues’ title-decider at Brighton late in the season.
As he began to come to grips with his new context in Manchester, Mahrez was handed the Algerian national team’s captain’s armband.
Since Mahrez has captained Algeria they are undefeated and he has tallied 9 goals and 7 assists in 21 matches.
Off the pitch
For many Algerians, Mahrez’s growth off the pitch has been concordant with his performances on it.
In the summer of 2019, as Algeria was set to play Nigeria in the semi-final of the Africa Cup of Nations, Julien Odoul of Marin Le Pen’s Rassemblement National political party, tweeted his support for the Super Eagles.
“To avoid violence, pillaging, to avoid the flood of Algerian flags, to preserve our national holiday, don’t expect anything from Castaner. Instead, have faith in the 11 Nigerian players! #ISupportNigeria #ALGNIG”
During the match, Mahrez created Algeria’s first goal before scoring a historic free-kick in the last minute of the match.
“😂😂😂 The free-kick was for you. We are together 🇩🇿🇫🇷” Mahrez tweeted at Odoul, his response immediately going viral.
“Football >>> hate. Good night 🇩🇿🇫🇷” He posted a few minutes later.
Two years on, Mahrez again stepped up to the plate off of the pitch.
In response to the illegal Sheikh Jarrah evictions, he wasted no time in tweeting his support for the Palestinian cause which is extremely close to the Algerian public.
“#Palestine #SaveSheikhJarrah” he tweeted along with a photo of the Palestinian flag.
The tweet was re-tweeted more than 67,000 times and he doubled down a few days later by celebrating Manchester City’s Premier League title by waving the Palestinian flag at Etihad stadium.
Mahrez is now coming into his own as a player and as a man.
For the last few years, he has voiced his political opinions and is now also playing the best football of his career.
And yet, with a crucial Champions League final and the 2022 World Cup looming large, you get the feeling that the best is yet to come.
Maher Mezahi is an Algerian football journalist based in Algiers. He has covered North African football extensively, with his work published in international publications such as the BBC, The Guardian, The Telegraph, ESPN Africa and Al Jazeera English.
Follow him on Twitter: @MezahiMaher