Riyad Mahrez has been one of the inspirations behind Leicester’s unexpected but widely welcomed Premier League title challenge.
The 25-year-old Algeria international, signed from French side Le Havre for just £400,000 in January 2014, has been a sensation this season, scoring 15 league goals, including the winner against Watford on Saturday.
Mahrez’s journey to this point has been far from straightforward.
The slight but talented forward was born in the tough Parisian suburb of Sarcelles and lost his father, Ahmed, to a heart attack at the age of 15.
But his determination and skill took him across France and to the top of the Premier League.
‘Sport is the way to get out from the street’
Mahrez’s first club was AAS Sarcelles, based in a poor suburb in the north of Paris that has a large number of African immigrants. He joined the club – who play in the local Ligue de Paris – in 2004.
Hayel Mbemba, a former team-mate at AAS Sarcelles: “Riyad was a man who played on Monday, Tuesday… all the day, every day he played football.
“When he finished playing with the team he would go around the gymnasiums of Sarcelles looking for somewhere to play and train. That was the mentality of Riyad.
“Football, and sport in general, in Sarcelles is the way to get out from the street, to not go down another path that will not be good.
“The training ground is named after Nelson Mandela and the stadium after Philippe Christanval. Mandela is a figure of example and Christanval is the first player from Sarcelles to go to good clubs like Fulham, Barcelona and Monaco, so we gave the stadium his name.
“Maybe soon, the next few months, we will build a new stadium and name it after Riyad. I hope we can do that.
“He is an example, an inspiration for the young people.”
‘Now all the children ask for a Mahrez’
Mahrez used to visit hairdressers Nassim Coiffure as a child. Nassim and his staff are also Algerian, and the hairdressers – in Sarcelles – remains an anchor for Mahrez, a connection with his past.
Nassim: “All the time, little boys of five or six tell me to give them the Mahrez cut.
“I have a lot of clients now that come because of Riyad. They come from Lille, from Belgium, from everywhere! I know all of his hair, all of the strands. He always changes his hairdo. If he changes his hair, people copy him. If he puts a line in his hair, people put a line in too.
“He’s like the Cristiano Ronaldo of Sarcelles. If Riyad does something, everyone imitates him.
“His barber never changes, he has changed his team and the country he plays in but he has never changed his routine. He still hangs out with his friends, he’s always in Sarcelles, and Riyad is Riyad. Riyad of Sarcelles is Riyad of Leicester, the same person. He’s a wonderful boy.
“I’m so happy for Riyad. When you see him like this in England, in the Premier League – it’s phenomenal. I get goose bumps when I see Riyad score a goal. I feel like crying when I see him play.”
We lived the life of students – constant takeaways
Quimper, just over 350 miles from Paris, is the ancient capital of Brittany’s most traditional region and in the rainiest part of France. Mahrez moved there in 2009. The club were in the fourth tier of French football when he joined.
Mahrez spent his first six months in their second team before gradually making his way through the ranks. He lived with Mathias Pogba in a small apartment in the town centre and was ferried to and from training by a local journalist because he could not drive.
Mathias Pogba, brother of France and Juventus midfielder Paul: “As a room mate, first of all I couldn’t get on with him because he was not tidy at all. I am very tidy, he used to eat and leave his plate.
“I had to domesticate him, I had to put him on his feet. Then after two or three months everything was all right. Before that? No, it was not correct.
“We had a bad diet. Bad, bad, bad, always eating steak and french fries.
“We lived a proper student life. Two boys, can’t cook, having takeaway, always out.
“I took him as my little brother, I have two brothers so naturally I take the big brother role. I give him advice still. If he listens he listens, if he doesn’t he doesn’t.
“With the ball at his feet he’s unstoppable, but I always told him ‘you need to get bigger because you are too skinny’. He has not put on one kilo since then so he obviously hasn’t listened.
“No player is skinny like him nowadays, but he’s getting more clever so he doesn’t need to use his body.
“Can he be as good as Paul? I think he can, if he keeps going in this way he can be a top, top, top, top player – and puts some weight on.”
A gem in the rough
Ronan Salaun, Mahrez’s head coach at Quimper: “We had a trial day, a friendly with 20 players, and Riyad was the only one we kept.
“It took 20 minutes to realise we wanted him. Although he had a slight physique he had technical qualities.
“He was a gem in the rough. He must continue to grow even if Leicester become champions. The logical step is to play for a big European club so he can shine on the international stage.”
Jo Dorval, a board member at Quimper: “He came with a bag which had in it only three items. A toothbrush, toothpaste and football boots. His left foot – he brought that too but it wasn’t in the bag.”
At one point Mahrez was told by the president of Quimper that they could not afford to give him a contract.
Christoph Marchand, a local journalist who covers Quimper: “Riyad was so disappointed, he called his mum almost burning in tears.
“The president saw his desperation and 24 hours later he had signed a contact. Maybe if Riyad didn’t have this reaction, he wouldn’t have got the contract.
“Six years ago he was nothing. He was in a low division in France, playing in front of 20 people. But now he has a kind of genius.”
“I wrote at the time that he would become great”
Le Havre is in Normandy, 300 miles from Quimper. Riyad was 19 when he joined the Ligue 2 club in 2010 and remained there until he moved to Leicester in January 2014.
Le Havre nurtured talent such as Paul Pogba and Dmitri Payet, and Mahrez was linked with PSG and Marseille while at the club.
But it wasn’t all plain sailing. Coach Erick Mombaerts worked hard to refine and develop Mahrez’s raw talent, but also used to substitute him a lot when he did not track back as he had been instructed.
It has been reported that Leicester were actually scouting Ryan Mendes, who is now at Nottingham Forest. It was only while checking on Mendes that a scout spotted Mahrez.
Florian Floqe, a member of the Barbarians, Le Havre’s official supporter’s club: “Ryan Mendes for sure was the better player. We expected him to reach a higher level than Riyad. Ryan was a fantastic player but he got a bad injury.
“Riyad had always the same move, dribbling past a few players on the right wing, cutting inside and shooting.
“It might be working in England now, but that sort of Arjen Robben style doesn’t work in Ligue 2.
“I wrote in my blog at the time that Riyad will become a great player and people laughed at me. A very skilled player but he didn’t use his talent efficiently. He had potential but only potential.
“We are very happy for Riyad, even proud of him.”
Yann Simon, also a member of the Barbarians, Le Havre’s official supporter’s club: “There was no song for him at the club.
“My typical favourite players are hard working, strong midfielders. He plays for himself first of all, he played for himself not the team, he was a selfish player.
“Of course, we hope he will be transferred at the end of the season [for the sell-on fee].
“We don’t know the total amount of the bonus, but it could be the same amount as our budget for a whole year in Le Havre. I say good luck to him and please be transferred at the end of this season… don’t wait longer!”
Edited by Paul Fletcher.