"That's Riyad . . . ," says Mohamed Coulibaly, shrugging. "Since he was a young player he has always believed in his talent and he has never been scared. If you give him an objective then he will achieve it."
It is more than 12 years since a skinny teenager who had struggled to make the grade at his local club, AAS Sarcelles, tried his luck in a trial with non-league Quimper, 600km away on France's Atlantic coast.
Since then Riyad Mahrez has fulfilled his ambition of representing Algeria at the World Cup and won the PFA Player of the Year award for his role in Leicester's 2016 title triumph. His match-winning performance for Manchester City in the Champions League semi-final against Paris Saint-Germain was the latest step on his journey to greatness, according to his former coach.
“I’m not surprised he has reached this level because since the age of 18 he has been transformed into a monster,” says Coulibaly, who remains technical director at Sarcelles. “Riyad has always been very strong mentally and believed in himself - now he has become a complete player who is not afraid of responsibility.”
Mahrez spent almost five years at Sarcelles, who play around the corner from where he grew up in a north Parisian suburb that continues to have high unemployment rates. His father, Ahmed, had moved to France from Algeria at the age of 23 in the early 1970s for heart treatment that prolonged his life for almost three decades, but he died when his son was 15.
“At that age Riyad was very small and timid,” Coulibaly says. “But he was always a kid who just wanted to play football and he is still the same today. It’s part of his character. There are a lot of young people from Sarcelles with the same mentality.”
Friends have described Mahrez as a “football madman” often spotted honing his skills into the early hours in his local quartier of Les Sablons. “He played even without light - no one could stop him,” Hayel Mbemba, who was also his supervisor in college, told AFP this month.
That determination paid off as Mahrez was taken on by Quimper before earning his move to Leicester via Le Havre. His heroics for Claudio Ranieri's side ensured a triumphant homecoming in 2016, with the local barber, Nassim, inundated with requests for the "Mahrez cut". "He's like the Cristiano Ronaldo of Sarcelles," Nassim told the BBC in 2016. "If Riyad does something, everyone imitates him."
“All the kids here are very proud,” Coulibaly says. “He had courage and lots of them would like to achieve what he has. When Riyad was 17, things were very hard for him but now he is one of the best players in the world. It just shows that anything is possible, even for someone from Sarcelles.”
A stadium named after Mahrez was to be opened in his home town even before his more recent exploits for City and inspiring Algeria to victory in the Africa Cup of Nations in 2019 cemented his status as a hero in the country where he spent many childhood holidays. According to the Algerian journalist Maher Mezahi, the decision of the coach, Djamel Belmadi, to make him captain before their crucial qualifier against Togo in November 2018 altered things for the good.
“Under the previous coach, things weren’t going very well and there were some serious questions about whether he should even be in the team,” he says. “Nothing was clicking. But the decision by Belmadi to give him the armband in the away match against Togo really helped to kickstart his career. He scored twice and we won 4-1 but you could see that he grew up during that camp.
"Now he has become a real example for the rest of the players in the national team. He's always risen to the big occasion. His free-kick in the last minute of the semi-final against Nigeria was the ultimate example of how he has become a big-game player."
As well as scoring three times in the two legs against PSG to help set up Saturday's Champions League final against Chelsea, Mahrez scored when City secured the Premier League title against Brighton in 2019 and has made a knack of contributing when it matters most.
Yet Coulibaly has seen a marked difference in his former protege over the past two seasons: “He defends more. When Riyad was younger, it was very hard to get him to help the team defend but now you see him working as hard as anyone. Against PSG, he performed a very important defensive role and he has definitely become less of an individual and part of a collective.”
That is testament to Pep Guardiola's management of a player who at one stage seemed destined to remain on the fringes at City. Used sparingly in his first season after arriving for a club-record £60m in 2018, Mahrez hinted before Afcon at frustration over his minor role in their title win. But his performances in Egypt and a strong start to the new season appeared to help persuade Guardiola he could be integrated into the side.
Proof that Guardiola’s head had been turned came in January 2020 when he made the bizarre comment that it was impossible for Mahrez to be injured “because he has no muscles”, before adding: “In the final third he has something special; always I have the feeling he can score.”
He has performed a slightly different role this season when City have played without a recognised striker. His energy moving infield from the right to allow space for Kyle Walker to get forward has added an extra dimension and left Raheem Sterling on the bench.
“In Algeria it’s really big news,” Mezahi says of Mahrez’s success. “I’ve never seen such excitement for a player from an overseas club. It was all over social media after City’s victory over PSG in the semi-final and since then everywhere you go people want to talk about him. During the Eid celebrations last week Mahrez was the main topic of discussion when families got together.”
Mahrez turned 30 in February and is one of the most recognisable players in the world but, according to Coulibaly, he hasn’t really changed. “He is still a kid at heart. He still loves messing around with his friends from Sarcelles like they always used to when he comes back to visit. The biggest thing with Riyad is he loves football. For him, playing is not a job - it’s a pleasure.” - Guardian