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Africa Cup of Nations

Riyad Mahrez, high-rise Desert Fox takes on Africa

Sarcelles (France) (AFP) – “Riyad Mahrez? He’s an example!” goes the mantra in Sarcelles, a north Parisian housing project where strings of high-rise blocks were built in the 1950s and 1960s primarily to accommodate French settlers from Algeria.

It was in this town 16km (10 miles) north of Paris that the Algerian international was born and raised, and the Premier League winner with Leicester who will be one of the stars of the upcoming African Cup of Nations continues to inspire.

At AAS Sarcelles, Mahrez’s first club, the young wannabe footballers all seem to favour their left feet, like their idol, now 25.

On one of the football pitches belonging to the multi-faceted Sarcelles sports club, the regional under-16 team fight to talk about Mahrez, and the praise is, unsurprisingly, high.

Sekou and Yanis, naturally left-sided attacking midfielders, express their admiration for the path trodden by a player long ignored as a youth because of what was deemed a puny physique.

Mahrez stagnated in Sarcelles’ second or third teams, plying his trade in the wider Paris region until he was 18 before touching down in England five years later, after spells at Quimper and Le Havre.

Mohamed, yet another ‘leftie’, speaks of the ‘street’ style Mahrez has maintained despite going professional.

“When he’s in front of a player, you know he’s going to skin him,” he said.

“It’s his speciality and I love it! Imagine you’re facing a defender, you do a step-over, change direction and he falls: the crowd goes nuts! It’s too cool.”

Faysal Abdelwahbi, 23, a childhood friend of Mahrez’s, was adamant that “everything started here”.

“All the things he does to defenders in England, we were on the receiving end right back in the beginning.

“That step-over dribble against Manchester United, sending (Chelsea’s Cesar) Azpilicueta the wrong way, or really taking (Martin) Demichelis to the cleaners…” he reminisced to general hilarity.

– ‘Source of pride’ –

And Faysal doesn’t want to forget the significance of the African Player of the Year award handed to a dual-national brought up in the “most cosmopolitan city in the world!”

“That someone from Sarcelles manages to shine on a world level is a source of massive pride for us,” said Mohamed Coulibaly, the current Sarcelles coach.

“You mustn’t forget the French side because he remains a Franco-Algerian.

“It’s a good image for the city, given all you hear, the stigmatisation that it can bring. It shows there is talent in sport. We’d love that to shine through in other areas.”

His Sarcelles friends all concurred that Mahrez, from a very young age, was convinced he would succeed, even when the going got tough.

“Most of the youngsters of his generation had signed for a club, but not him,” said Hayel Mbemba, 30, who worked at Mahrez’s Chantereine secondary school supervising the teenagers.

“And despite that, Riyad swore on his life and that of his mum that he’d become a professional.

“We weren’t optimistic then, but now he’s achieved it, we can only have respect for him.”

Mahrez’s thirst for success increased after the death of his Algerian father Ahmed, his most fervent backer, in 2006.

“That gave him strength. He really did it for him, for me, the family,” says his big brother Wahid, 30.

And choosing to represent Algeria was something he did “for his dad”.

“What made the difference was that he always had a ball with him,” added another childhood friend, Sofiane Seghiri.

“When you were 16 to 18 years old and went out, you wanted to have fun with your mates, go and see some girls,” said Seghiri.

“Riyad had his ball – that’s why he’s unique!”

– ‘Mahrez effect’ –

Despite an unsuccessful trial in Scotland when he was 18, Mahrez’s patience eventually paid dividends when he signed for fourth division side Quimper, departing for second division club Le Havre a year later.

Leicester, then in the Championship, snapped up Mahrez for £400,000 in 2014, and the rest is history.

The Foxes won the Championship and Mahrez found himself in the Premier League, making 30 appearances as the team avoided relegation in their first season among the elite before hitting a high in the triumphant 2015-16 season. Mahrez’s performances propelled the Algerian international to a seventh-placed finish in the World Player of the Year voting.

His success has not gone unnoticed on the ground in Sarcelles.

“There’s maybe a Mahrez effect that has brought English scouts here,” admitted Faycal.

“We’ve just had two youngsters signed up, one at Nottingham Forest and the other at Manchester United. And it’s not finished,” he said, reeling off the 30-or-so club products that have gone on to play professionally.

And who’s to say better is not to come? “We’re waiting for (Lionel) Messi and (Cristiano) Ronaldo to leave and then we’ll talk again about the Ballon d’Or,” said former school monitor Hayel, with not a hint of irony.

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