Algerian Riyad Mahrez, from a Parisian suburb at the top of African football


After leading Algeria to victory in the African Cup of Nations (CAN 2019), Riyad Mahrez will arrive at the 2021 tournament with the ambition of achieving a historic double. It would cap off an astonishing career which has seen the Manchester City winger’s talent blossom – despite an inauspicious start at local minnows AAS Sarcelles and without any training in the academy of a prestigious club.

It is rare for players to have a stadium named after them in their lifetime. But at the Nelson Mandela Sports Center in Sarcelles – a northern suburb of Paris – a stadium bears the name of one of the region’s most expensive products: Riyad Mahrez, star of Manchester City and captain of the Algerian team which won the CAN-19.

Mahrez achieved this fame despite an unusual start to his career. Unlike many players of his caliber who grew up in Europe, he did not start in the academy of a legendary club.

“Only one person believed in Mahrez’s future success, and that was Riyadh himself,” said Hayel Mbemba, former teammate of AAS Sarcelles, the obscure France team where Mahrez played as a teenager. “His strength of character is well above average,” Mbemba told AFP.

“You can’t even play for Sarcelles!”30-year-old Mahrez’s football story begins at this local club, which he joined at the age of 12. Despite playing for hours, Mahrez was viewed by scouts as an average player. Despite all his technical mastery, his slender physique was not an attraction for the best talent scouts.

“Initially, the quality of his technique allowed him to do well,” Mohamed Coulibaly, technical director of AAS Sarcelles, told AFP. “But it was tough when he got into eleven-a-side football; it was more complicated for him, because as the teenagers left he was late in developing physically from 12 to 16. He was small and didn’t have the physical qualities necessary for the game, so he struggled for three or four years. He was playing in the reserve team. Then there was the 14 years old championships, it was the highest France’s level in this age category. The players in this tournament had high visibility, so the most promising were able to join professional clubs. But Mahrez did not catch their attention.

Mahrez persisted in the face of adversity. He would tell anyone who listened to him that he would play at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. His coaches replied, “You can’t even play for Sarcelles! Coulibaly told AFP.

But Mahrez’s flourishing self-confidence eventually paid off. His physical development finally caught up with that of his peers. He ended up becoming a mainstay of the AAS Sarcelles first team – and then something of a star. Throughout this time, Mahrez has never stopped chasing his dream of breaking through as a professional, regularly jumping on planes and trains to perform tests across Europe.

He finally won an 18 breakaway by signing with Quimper, a Breton club in the French fourth division. It was the start of Mahrez’s inexorable rise. The following year, he joined Le Havre in Ligue 1.

Fierce motivationMahrez’s impressive performances in Normandy caught the attention of the English; in 2014 he signed for then-league Leicester City, England’s Second Division. At first he was reluctant, but after consulting friends in Sarcelles, he decided to cross the Channel.

But Leicester turned out to be an inspired choice. They quickly won a promotion to the Premier League and – under-acclaimed manager Claudio Ranieri – pulled off the incredible feat of clinching the title in 2016, triumphing over England’s big six.

It was a series of outstanding performances, which helped propel Leicester into the football stratosphere, which earned Mahrez the attention of Europe’s biggest clubs. In 2018, he signed for Manchester City juggernaut from Pep Guardiola, winning the 2019 and 2021 Premiership titles.

Of French and Algerian nationality, Mahrez has chosen to represent Algeria, his parents’ country of origin. Mahrez got his first cap at 23, while Algeria was on its way to qualifying for the 2014 World Cup. Then Algerian coach Vahid Halilhodzic was impressed with his talent and called him up for the tournament in Brazil – proving Mahrez right against the skeptics who ridiculed his dream. The justification was particularly sweet as the unpretentious Algerian team progressed to the round of 16, only crashing against Germany, the team that won the tournament.

Five years later, Mahrez lifted the CAN trophy with the captain’s armband as Algeria triumphed over Egypt in the final – after a particularly impressive semi-final performance against Nigeria, with two goals including a free kick spectacular in overtime.

Despite all his success and fame, Mahrez has never forgotten his roots. Shortly after his success at CAN-19, he returned to Sarcelles, where mayor Patrick Haddad presented him with the city medal, under the watchful eye of his proud mother.

It was “natural” to present the medal to Mahrez, Haddad said. “He represents an exemplary form of success and he is a great representative of Sarcelles. That’s why we wanted to give some sort of formal recognition of our pride in his career – that shows everyone, especially the young people growing up here, what can be achieved.

Despite all of his successes, Mahrez remains a “local boy” at heart, Haddad added.

The Man City star remains active in the local community, regularly inviting young AAS Sarcelles players to Manchester to watch his club play.

In a 2015 interview, Mahrez told The Guardian that his father’s death from a heart attack gave him the kind of fierce motivation he needed: “My father was always behind me, he wanted me to be a footballer. He was always with me. He came to every game with me to help me. He previously played for small teams in Algeria and France and he knew what he was saying, so I listened to him. [His death] Maybe it was the kick-off. I don’t know if I started to be more serious, but after my father died things started to work out for me. Maybe in my head I wanted him more.

Given that Algeria has displayed a series of unbeaten streaks in its last 33 official matches, Mahrez has every reason to believe that his relentless desire to succeed will bring his nation its second consecutive CAN trophy.

This article has been translated from the original into French.


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