If one man could personify Leicester City’s rise from relegation to being English Premier League champions-elect, it would be Riyad Mahrez.
Signed from French second-tier side Le Harve for a bargain €450,000 (Dh1.8 million) in January 2014, the 25-year-old France-born Algerian winger’s chances of making an impact in England were considered — like 5,000/1 title-shot Leicester — limited.
As a slight five-foot-ten-inch (1.78 metres) playmaker weighing 61kg, Mahrez was thought to be ill-suited to the physical nature of the English game, and would perhaps been better off chancing his luck in Spain, where skill and finesse aren’t automatically responded to with an elbow in the face.
Club and player have both euphorically held their own in this supposed cauldron of brawn, however.
Leicester, an unfashionable Midlands side with little prior success to speak of, are on the verge of a fairy-tale first top-flight league title, and stand seven points clear, three games away from one of the greatest sports stories ever told. The Foxes could even confirm the title as early as tomorrow with what would be a historic victory away to record 20-time league champions Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Mahrez, meanwhile, only last week became the first Arab to lift the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) Players’ Player of the Year Award — a 43-year-old honour bestowed upon the English season’s best performer and decided by his peers.
No other player has been involved in the overall creation and execution of more goals this season. He’s the joint third-most assists maker with 11 setups; and the fifth top scorer with 17 goals (four of which were penalties) from 34 appearances.
The list of past winners, which he joins, reads like a who’s who of English football — from Norman Hunter to Eden Hazard and everyone in between. But the award winners are predominantly white British players from the traditional top-four clubs, making Mahrez’s inclusion as a debutant of Arab origin from an unfancied club all the more significant.
“What’s the big deal?” you may ask. France’s 1998 World Cup-winning midfielder and now coach of Real Madrid, Zinedine Zidane, who is also of Algerian descent, has more than blazed the trail for Arab football. He won the Fifa World Player of the Year Award three times and won one Ballon D’Or.
However, Zidane had achieved the majority of his successes in Italy and Spain and never played for a club in England, where it has always been wrongly considered that such flair players wouldn’t adapt, weren’t strong enough, or didn’t have the right mentality or attitude to succeed.
In Zidane’s exceptional case, it wouldn’t have been for the lack of Premier League clubs desperately trying to get his signature, that he never reached the shores of England. And having ended his career with an infamous red card for a head butt on Marco Materazzi in the 2006 World Cup final between Italy and France, he would have more than held his own.
But for other Arab players who have played in England — for whatever reason it may be, be it justified or discriminatory — it’s been a much harder road. And it’s only now through Mahrez’s standout success that so many preconceptions can be proven false.
He’s by no means the next Zidane, but he has certainly blazed a trail for young Arab players in England.
Look at this in an even wider context of what’s going on in Europe at the moment, and it wouldn’t be stretching the bounds of your imagination to say Mahrez’s achievements will surpass the moulding of just footballing opinion.
Here’s a player who grew up in the suburbs of northern Paris to immigrant parents — an Algerian father and Moroccan mother — and is now proving that you can achieve anything you set your mind on, no matter where you are from.
His story, like Leicester’s, won’t just appeal to minorities and underdogs everywhere, but also to those who need reminding of the benefits of integration and acceptance, despite testing times.
With the UK in particular approaching a referendum on whether to exit the European Union - in a move no doubt partly sparked by the recent migrant crisis and fears of Europe’s open border policy, especially in light of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels – Mahrez and diverse Leicester are demonstrating the power of what can be achieved by sticking together.