Leicester City and Riyad Mahrez gaining fans in Algeria

AFP , Monday 29 Feb 2016

Riyad Mahrez
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri talks to Riyad Mahrez during the game (Reuters)

Riyad Mahrez shirts are flying off the shelves of sports shops in Algiers as the Algerian winger continues to impress for Premier League leaders Leicester City.

The form of the 25-year-old, who has 14 league goals and 10 assists this season, has led to calls for him to win the PFA Player of the Year award and elevated him to god-like status in his home country, where many have become Leicester fans.

The 2015 Algerian Player of the Year has scored four goals in 22 international appearances, and is held in higher regard by fans than World Cup stars Yacine Brahimi and Sofiane Feghouli.

"Before Mahrez, Leicester were unknown in Algeria where Liverpool was the most popular club," said Samir Lamari, of sports daily Liberte.

"Now it is the most popular club in the country, supported by more than five million people, with the Premier League watched more than the local Ligue 1.

"A Leicester match is an event which permits people to meet", even at work or on a Sunday, while children skip school to watch him play.

In a country where football is revered, Mahrez is considered a deity.

"We ordered shirts four days ago, but they have still not arrived," said an impatient seller who sells Mahrez jerseys for 7,000 dinars (60 euros, $65), which is 40 percent of the national monthly minimum wage.

There are counterfeit shirts available at seven times cheaper though, sold illegally in the heart of the Casbah citadel.

"Thank god, Mahrez, it's just crazy," rejoiced a young salesman about the rise of the child born in the suburbs of Paris, but who was snubbed by both France and Marseille.

Annis, a 23-year-old student, spoke of a "resentment towards bi-national French-Algerians from the older generation",

"He confuses with his dribbles, has an excellent pass, and understands the game," added Annis, who has not missed a single one of his matches, and can recall all of his tricks and goals.

- From zero to hero -

Things have not always been easy in Algeria for former Le Havre player Mahrez, who had caught the eye of Bosnian coach Vahid Halihodzic before the Brazil World Cup.

Dropped after the opening defeat to Belgium, Mahrez did not play again in the 2014 tournament as Algeria bowed out to eventual winners Germany in the last 16.

"It was even alleged that Mahrez paid me to take him to the World Cup," claimed former national coach Halihodzic.

But those days are in stark contrast to his current situation, as Mahrez's stunning form in England has helped him settle into the Algeria side under new manager Christian Gourcuff.

Algerians also appreciate the humility of their prodigy, who often visits his hometown of Beni Snous near the Moroccan border.

"I love my country, I love the people of my country and I always say that when I come here," Mahrez said during his last trip home in June.

It was here that his father was buried in 2006, a moment that the player regards as a turning point for both his life and career at the age of 15.

"The death of my father may have been when it all started. I don't know if I started to get more serious then, but after his death, things began to turn," he told the Guardian earlier this season.

If he can continue to replicate his Foxes form with the Desert Foxes, then Mahrez's stock in Algeria is only going to rise more.

(For more sports news and updates, follow Ahram Online Sports on Twitter at @AO_Sports and on Facebook at AhramOnlineSports.)
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