Leicester City’s attacker Riyad Mahrez received L’Équipe Magazine exclusively in Leicester this week for an enormous interview during which he covered his unlikely path to success and an astonishing 2015/16. Read in full.
Do you realise that the entirety of European football has fallen for Leicester and that they all want you to become champions?
Not really, no. We can certainly tell that something is happening in England, but we live a little bit in our own bubble. We do not have the best players, nor the biggest budget, but our solidarity forces people to admire us. We have had a bit of luck too. It was this year or never.
Your adventure, it is the revenge of the “weak” against the powerful. Do you see morality here?
It is not a story of revenge for the little ones. It is just a symbol. We are here, that is all. Up until January, we didn’t think about the title. Now, it has become possible, but we are not becoming big-headed because of it.
I am going to insist on this point, Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kanté and you did not go through the youth academy process, it is a bit like the revenge of the barefooted men…
I like that image. We were not programmed to become professional footballers. I think we live our lives with a certain form of indifference. With N’Golo, I laugh about it. Our story is impossible, even if nothing is yet done. Wes Morgan, our captain, he was also discovered late. But honestly, internally, there is no difference between the more classic professional footballers and us.
It is relaxed. We have fun, we love what we do. Jamie Vardy and I we even sometimes have a good laugh during matches. With him, you see it more on TV than with me, but we are all relaxed. During the warm-up, in the tunnel, we poke fun at each other.
But as soon as we are on the pitch, we give everything. At Sarcelles, I was told to stop laughing because I would be poking fun at people non-stop. I am a very funny guy. After all, I don’t want to blow my own trumpet… I am joking.
And, of course, I am crazy competitive. In all types of games, I want to win. In France, at the clubs where I have been, I was a bit like the Djamel Debbouze (famous French comedian) of the group. A little less here, in England.
Jamie Vardy, your striker, has the demeanour of a Sunday league player. And he spends his time joking on the pitch. Zlatan, Agüero, Rooney and Co., they nearly never laugh.
Him and I, we are the jokers in the dressing room. The coach, Claudio Ranieri, allows us to be. Except one time at half-time against Newcastle. Then, he screamed at us. Apart from that, he does like to laugh. At training, he is amusing himself all the time. Less so on match days. There, he is concentrated.
Me, I will try to joke with him, to tell him that he is late, to make fun of his shoes, even if he smiles, his response is football. He says to me: “Hey, hey concentrate on the match.” His thing is to tell us: “Be smart, you are foxes.” The symbol of the club. In Algeria, I have the fennec as an emblem. We need to be crafty.
Are you the Ribéry of Leicester?
No, I do not do things like throwing buckets of water or putting salt in coffee. I ridicule, I laugh. I play more with words. With my opponents, I stay humble. I say nothing. Sometimes it has happened that I become annoyed, but, honestly, it is rare. I prefer to be calm in my corner.
Are you proud to be a footballer from the streets?
The streets, for me, was about dribbling, dribbling, attempting to score on your own. When I arrived at the professional level, I learnt nothing about dribbling. I knew how to do it all. At professional level, I worked on my physicality to eliminate opponents, to make the difference. A bit at Quimper, in the CFA, but certainly at Le Havre after that. It was there where I went to another level.
Every Thursday afternoon, we would tone our abs. Plus another hour of body conditioning. That hardened me. Tactically, I was not very good either. I stayed upfront and I waited for the ball. In the street, there is no offside. Érick Mombaerts really made me work on that. A great developer of talent. Before, I never came deep, I never re-positioned myself. I wanted the ball at my feet so that I could dribble.
Do you like defending?
I do not enjoy it, but I am obliged to do it. That is what the top level is about. At Leicester, the guys fight for every single ball. When you see them, you are forced to give everything. And, there, you are happy to be together. But well, sometimes, I am not in a good way, I have run a lot. Sometimes too, I do not really want to defend, in order to retain my final forces. It is for that reason that the coach often takes me off at the 80th minute because he thinks that I will just stay up front at that point.
Do you meet up with Vardy and Kanté a lot, outside of matches?
With Kanté, yes. He comes to mine. We eat together. We also play a bit of billiards. He is a shy guy.
Will you always be a street footballer?
I see myself as a normal footballer. If I was forced to choose, I would choose my career path via the streets more than a more classic development path. The difference, is that it is your instinct that remains stronger. You keep this little thing from the streets.
On the 24th April, you were voted as the best Premier League player of the season by your peers. Did you expect it?
It is a source of pride. I expected it a little bit admittedly, because I was hearing everyone saying that I was going to win it, but you always have a little bit of doubt. Of course I was hoping for it, but I will stop talking about myself. I still have not won anything. I saw that John Terry has voted for me. That is flattering.
He has won everything. Last year, away at Chelsea, he killed me. Totally. He totally had my dribbles figured out. This year, against them, I scored and nabbed an assist. Here, they do not let you go at all when they mark you. There are some who, if you go for a drink of water on the sideline, they follow you…
The hardest part is only just beginning. You now need to prove yourself consistently.
For the moment, nothing is done in football. I do not want this season to finish. We are in a good spot here. Next year, everything will start again from zero.
Do you sometimes go back to Sarcelles?
Yes, but it is becoming difficult in the streets. I want to be normal, but that is no longer possible. Halima, my mother, has stopped doing housework, I am happy for her. I am proud to be able to offer her this luxury. I will never be able to give her all that she gave me.
When Quimper offered me a trial, I was 18. The train ticket cost 160 Euros. I said to my mother: “Do not worry, I will give it back to you. I will break through.” Today, I have finally given it back to her. Not when I returned from Quimper, because she did not ask me for it.
Since then, I do everything for her. I would have liked to have begun my career closer to her. To stay with my friends, Quimper, it is really far. During one season, I came home once. I lived in a flatshare with one of the Pogba brothers.
I did not want to bring my mother there. I was a bit ashamed of myself, it was a total mess in the apartment. And then the ticket was expensive. I was earning €700 a month.
Do you think that you could have lost your way without having such an adult role-model in your life (his mother)?
I am not someone who goes and see loads of girls etc. I was all in with football. If someone asked me to go meet with girls or play a football match, I would choose football. I like it too much.
Is it your father, Ahmed, who died in 2006, that gave you that virus?
He came to play with us in the parking lot, and, when we were playing keep ball with a person in the middle, when it was his turn to be in the middle, he would make me go in his place. When he died, it motivated me even more to succeed. He believed in me. I know that he is happy where he is now.
Did you ever doubt your destiny?
When I was just a small kid, I did not stop saying that I would be a professional footballer one day. I bored my teachers at school with it. I persuaded myself: “Riyad, be calm, if you really are good, someone will come and get you.” And at the same time, when Quimper came for me, I did not want to go.
It was five hours on the train. My friends told me: “Oh Riyad you are crazy! Go on, this could be a springboard!” I went. I smashed it. I came back in July, but, then, I struggled physically in games, even though in training I killed everyone. I still managed to get a contract. I did not play at the beginning.
Sometimes, it was 14 hour bus ride to the away games and I did not even get substituted on! I felt like shit on the bus in the way back. “This sucks. You are rubbish, Riyad!”
You therefore doubted yourself. Like during your failed trial in Scotland, they you have not told me about.
That was before Quimper. An agent, Jean Evina, told me that he had a trial for me in the first division in Scotland with the St Mirren reserves. He paid for my ticket and I went with another guy from Sarcelles, Dany Bekale. It went well. I played four friendlies with the reserves and I scored seven goals.
I killed them. They made me wait. Two and a half months. I couldn’t take it anymore. It drove me crazy, Scotland. It was cold. It was too much. It snowed and everything… I was so cold that one day I faked an injury so that I could go back to the dressing room.
A few days later, my agent said to me: “I think that Jake Duncan, an English agent who works with us, wants to swindle me. Riyad, I have got you a ticket, you take the bus immediately, you go to Glasgow station and you get on the train for the airport and you take a flight to Paris.”
I did not speak any English at all. I forgot my boots at the training centre. I borrowed a bike from a guy at the hotel, I took my football boots, I packed my bag and I left without telling anyone. Even the woman at the hotel. I took the stairs to avoid the reception.
How did they react when you returned to Sarcelles?
Wait, the story is not finished. Duncan, the English agent, took revenge and tore up a contract of another Frenchman who had signed for Queen of the South, in the Scottish second division. The guy, I know him well, he plays for Béziers, Halifa Soulé. He was eaten alive. He had nothing to do with the entire thing!
After your bad experience in Scotland, how did you approach the offer from Leicester, an English second division club, at the end of 2013?
At the start, I said to myself: “I will never go.” My agents said: “are you crazy or what? Leicester is a fantastic club.” I thought that it was a rugby club! I promise you. I met the Leicester representatives, but I said to my friends afterwards: “I will never go.”
One week later, my agents came back to me. They said: “Hey! Riyad, they really want you. Take a look at their stadium on the internet.” They insisted, so the next day, I took a look. And I said ok, it looks good. And as well, I felt that Le Havre did not really want to keep me. The president was weird with me.
They wanted the 450,000 Euros…
Yes. So, I asked my mother what she thought about it. “Leicester? I do not know it… It is up to you.” It was the 7th or 8th of January, and two days later, I was supposed to play with Le Havre against Metz. I visited the training centre, the stadium. Well… it looked great, you know. Excellent in fact.
So I said ok, let’s sign. They are first in the English second division. I said to myself that this was better than being 10th with Le Havre. There was a small problem, things were not quite resolved between the agents and the club. Not a problem, I was happy, I said to myself that I would be able to play against Metz.
A half an hour later, my agents come back to me and say: “Go! We have made some sacrifices, you have to sign, this is too good for you.” I signed for a salary befitting for a good Ligue 1 player.
Do you remember your first game?
It was Leeds. I was on the bench. It was perhaps better that I didn’t come on… it was… intense. If I went on, they would have destroyed me. Certainly. Also, at Elland Road, the bench is edged downwards. The players looked even bigger. I would have been ruined, certainly. The coach, he wanted me to watch.
I came on for the second match, at home, against Middlesborough. One month later, I became a starter. I have never dropped out of the team since.
So you did not doubt your decision?
Yes, at the beginning, I asked myself how I was going to do this… At Leeds, I said to myself: “Where have you landed here?”
Your street footballing background helped you then?
Yes, thanks to it I get to escape from that problem. In the street, there are loads of bruisers who do not time their actions. I had to avoid them. Poorly coordinated people. We sometimes played on concrete. One day, a guy collided with my shoulder, I fell, on my shorts there was nothing, but my underpants inside had a hole in them. Can you imagine? I had pizzas for calves.
When it snowed, we went on synthetic and we played “crazy football”. Three against three on a big pitch. My mother, she let me dry in the corridor: “Nobody comes in with shoes or with wet socks.” So we got undressed in the hall.
For you, is football a sport about avoidance?
Yes, it is instinctive. At training, Claudio Ranieri organises small-sided games where we are allowed to have a maximum of three touches of the ball, except one player per team who is free. And you take turns. I say to the coach: “Hey! Boss, I have not yet been the free player.”
I want so much be that player, the player who improvises. Now, just before you came to see us, we lost because of me, all I did was dribble. I like it too much.
The Algerian national team, is it thanks to England that they started to track your progress?
Nobody ever came to see me before Leicester. Yet I thought I was already ready when I was at Le Havre. But where I have really improved is here. Ranieri gave us proper headaches in training with the tactical work. It took some time for us to get it, but our style of play has evolved.
“Riyad! Get back in the line of four! Get back and defend!” I have certainly heard that once or twice. Ranieri, he insists and insists. He looks at your stats too. If you do not run, you do not play. I do my 11km per match.
Are you a counter-attacking football team?
We are not Barca. We are not going to even pretend that. We remain solid and then we counter. But our opponents are waiting for us, and it is becoming difficult, certainly at home. It will be difficult right until the end.
But well, if you say that the entirety of Europe is with us…