Mahrez’s physique meant few coaches believed he would make it as a footballer despite his undoubted skill and speed but the Algeria World Cup star has dumbfounded the doubters by working hard and showing courage
Ahmed Mahrez was 54 when a heart condition took his life. His second son, Riyad, was 15 at the time. That was 2006 and the distraught teenager reacted in the way that would have made his father most proud, hardening his focus to make the most out of the talent that Ahmed had done much to cultivate. The young Mahrez has since outgrown the amateur district league in Paris where he had been playing, competed in the World Cup for the country of his father’s birth, Algeria, and become one of the most exciting – and effective – players in the Premier League for Leicester City.
“My dad was always behind me, he wanted me to be a footballer,” says Mahrez in careful English. “He was always with me. He came to every game with me to give me help. He played before for small teams in Algeria and France so he knew what he was saying, so I listened to him. [His death] maybe was the kickstart. I don’t know if I started to be more serious but after the death of my dad things started to go for me. Maybe in my head I wanted it more.”
Fulfilling his and his father’s ambition still seemed a long shot. He was playing for his local team in Sarcelles, a northern suburb of Paris with abundant state-built tower blocks, high immigrant populations and low career prospects. “We were definitely not rich, but we were not poor,” says Mahrez. “My mum always came home from work and did everything so that we ate well.” It was nature that decreed the young Mahrez would be exceptionally thin and his physique meant few coaches believed he would make it as a footballer despite his baroque skill. “They said I was too skinny, everyone will push you off the ball,” says the 24-year-old. “I had a good technique but physically I wasn’t too strong. And I wasn’t fast. But I always worked hard.” Advertisement Mohamed Coulibaly, the technical director of Sarcelles, agrees, telling L’Equipe last year that: “He was very frail. But he never gave up and that’s paying off. You can see on the pitch that he never hides. From very early on he learned to take responsibilities. He has something more than technique, he has the guts and character that make great players.” Mahrez still looks slight enough to stash himself behind a post if he were inclined to hide, but he is more powerful now and speed has become one of his best weapons. What most confounds opponents and delights fans is the trickiness of his dribbles. Elusiveness is a quality he honed first in the streets, then at Sarcelle, then at Quimper, the French non-league club that decided to take a chance on him in 2009. “When you’re skinny or small you don’t go into duels,” he says. “One manager at Quimper said to me: ‘You have to play without contact, you have to be clever because now you’re not strong enough.’” He developed an anarchic savviness that he reckons academy graduates seldom possess and points to his Leicester team-mates Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante, who share his mindset having also worked their way up from non-league. “We’re not programmed. When you’re in an academy, every day you’re in at 9am and it’s: ‘Do this, do that’, but we just came with our football. Sometimes you see me on the pitch and you think I’m playing on the street. That brings something different to the team. It’s better to have a lot of different qualities in the team, it’s a good mix.” Mahrez has also shown savviness with his career decisions. Ambition has never made him rash. When, after six months at Quimper, Paris Saint-Germain and Marseille came calling, he elected to join Le Havre in Ligue 2 instead. “Le Havre was a good choice for me because they have a good youth system,” he says. Advertisement “I played for the under-21s and then the first team. It was difficult for me when I started in the first team because in the French second division it is always so defensive, everybody seems to be playing for 0-0. The first year was difficult, the second year was good. Then I did six months and went to Leicester. My life is like that. It always has to be step by step.” He took some convincing that English football and the Championship, where Leicester were in 2014, was the right step. “Everybody was saying to me: ‘Riyad, England is not for you, it is too physical, too strong. Spanish football would suit you better.’ So I never thought I would play in England. But I spoke to my agent and he said it would be very good for you. And I spoke with my family. I said: ‘OK, I will give it a go,’ and when I got here I really liked it. When I started training and playing games I thought to myself: ‘I was stupid to hesitate.’” Leicester were admirably astute, picking up the player for €450,000. He is worth many multiples of that now, having taken his game to new levels and enjoyed experiences that money cannot buy. “The club has given me everything,” he says. “I discovered the Premier League and played in the  World Cup. I was playing in the Championship but we were always first and always winning so Algeria started watching me. If I was still playing in the second division in France, nobody would have watched me.” Although he was born in France and his mother is Moroccan, he wanted to play for the country from which his father emigrated. “I used to go to Algeria on holiday every year with him and my brother. I have a lot of family there. I lived in France and grew up there and my mum still lives there but my heart is more Algerian.” His affection for Leicester has also grown. He was saddened when his first manager at the club, Nigel Pearson, was sacked in June soon after presiding over the club’s sensational escape from relegation. “Nigel was like a dad to me because when I came here he was always speaking to me and he gave me a lot of confidence. Sometimes he shouted at me and screamed at me but it was for my own good. I was disappointed when he left because he brought me here. He is a good person as well. They brought in a new manager and I didn’t know him.” But he has come to know and like Claudio Ranieri, too, and attributes his spectacular start to the season, in which he has scored four goals, to the Italian. “He helps us a lot tactically so I’m getting better tactically. We needed that. And he has given me a lot of responsibility and confidence. He gives me the key of the game. He said: ‘Riyad, do your job offensively and defensively’ because he wants me to be a complete player. He helped me a lot in training and speaks to me.” The Italian’s defensive instructions are helpful, the offensive one simple: “He says: ‘Just go create things. I would never change your game. I like how you play.’” Ranieri, like Pearson, has warned against expecting too much from Mahrez, pointing out that the player has come a long way in a short time. He withdrew him at half-time at Bournemouth, who successfully nullified him. “He said to me: ‘It was difficult for you, they blocked you. You’re not always going to be the best player on the pitch but that’s OK, there’s nothing wrong.” Mahrez knows he has to find a way of overcoming extra attention from opponents. But Sunday’s visitors to the King Power Stadium, Aston Villa, may be unhappy to note that he says he still thrives at home. “Sometimes [opponents] put two or three players on me. It’s more difficult away, they close me more, but at home we have a lot of space when we have the ball so it’s better for me.” Leicester really is home. He married an Englishwoman in the summer before pledging his professional future to the club by signing a contract extension to 2019. That was despite interest from Roma and Villarreal. There were even rumours of inquiries from Barcelona. “I don’t care about things like that. I am a Leicester City footballer and I am happy here. In life if you have to go somewhere you go but I don’t want to think about that.”