At 18, Riyad Mahrez was playing in the eighth tier of French football; now, at 25, his name is on the shortlist for the 2016 Ballon d’Or, alongside those of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. The Algerian is an English Premier League champion and its reigning Player Of The Year. Not bad for a guy who remains proud of his roots as a “street footballer” and who only entered the academy system at the relatively late age of 19.
Every top team needs a wizard who can conjure up spells in the final third. Along with Riyad Mahrez, these are the players with the creativity and flair to make a crucial difference in Africa’s showpiece football tournament:
- Hakim Ziyech
- Yacine Brahimi
In January, Mahrez will be aiming to sprinkle some stardust onto his nation’s cause, and the well-organised Algerian team, who have impressed in recent major tournaments, will be hoping he provides an x-factor that takes them to the next level. Mahrez also brings no shortage of fight to the national side; his slight build belies the hard graft that has contributed to his meteoric rise.
Mahrez’s journey to the top began as soon as he could kick a ball properly. He was five when his dad signed him up to a club in Sarcelles, a Paris suburb he describes as “a dangerous ghetto”.
As a teenager, the Algerian found it almost impossible to separate himself from the game; he would recruit players for kickabouts at ridiculous hours, skipping sleep and meals in the process.
“I remember playing sometimes at midnight or one in the morning,” Mahrez recently told Sky Sports’ Pat Davison. “We knew a technique to open the gym. We’d call everyone and have a big tournament… The picture of me as a child is that I was always with a ball. That’s why I was so skinny – I would miss dinner. Mum would have to leave me food in the microwave.”
As Mahrez’s affinity for football grew and his on-field application increased, the person who had so encouraged and aided his pursuit of a professional career passed away. A heart condition robbed the fleet-footed player of his father, Ahmed, the man who had driven him to matches, provided an analysis on his performances, and was never short of advice. “It’s hard losing a parent, especially Dad, because he was always behind me,” he says. “It was his dream – and mine – for me to become a footballer. Where I am now is all for him.”
A move to French Ligue 2 club Le Havre – famed for its youth policy – in 2010 provided just the showcase the rising star needed.
Leicester City defied all expectation by taking the 2015/16 Premier League title, and the flamboyant skills of Mahrez were a decisive factor. The Algerian winger notched up 17 goals and 11 assists on his way to claiming the PFA Player Of The Year award in a scintillating season.
Following an impressive spell in the reserves, Mahrez was moved into the first team, where his performances really began to attract attention.
In January 2014, English Championship side Leicester City signed him on a three-year deal and went on to win promotion to the Premier League. The player’s fairytale was far from finished, though: against all logic, odds and expectation, Claudio Ranieri’s men were crowned 2015/16 champions – due in no small part to Mahrez’s astonishing displays of skill, trickery and magnificent finishing. He has replicated this brilliance for Algeria, and is determined to author yet another happy ending in Gabon.
Remember the name: Ziyech is the latest flair player from North Africa to make waves in Europe. The Moroccan, who plays for Ajax, is most comfortable operating just behind the striker as a central playmaker, utilising his rangy style and laser of a left foot to provide killer passes.
Brahimi caught the eye of many football fans in the 2014/15 season when his five goals and three assists helped take Porto into the Champions League quarter-finals. The Algerians will hope the unpredictable midfielder can produce more ‘Brahimi moments’ in Gabon.