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Le­ices­ter’s amaz­ing sea­son is thanks in no small part to Riyad Mahrez – but the Premier League Player of the Year con­tender hasn’t had it easy

Australian Four Four Two - - RIYAD MAHREZ -

ears trick­led down the cheeks of a skinny 18-year-old as his man­ager broke the news. The young Riyad Mahrez wasn’t ex­pect­ing this: a teenager, hun­dreds of miles from home, see­ing his dreams of be­com­ing a foot­baller snatched away. It was 2009 and Quim­per, an am­a­teur team in France’s fourth tier, had de­cided that the tricky winger, who just un­der seven years later would be lead­ing the most un­likely of Premier League ti­tle as­saults with Le­ices­ter City, wasn’t good enough for them. Or so it seemed. Man­ager Ro­nan Salaun, a wily for­mer pro, had liked what he’d seen of Mahrez on a July trial day fea­tur­ing more than 20 other play­ers, but he had been fight­ing a los­ing bat­tle try­ing to con­vince the club’s pow­ers that this spindly young wide­man was worth the bare min­i­mum $1200-per-month con­tract. By Septem­ber, how­ever, af­ter he’d been play­ing for a month, they’d caved. Mahrez was the only player Quim­per signed from that trial day. The Al­ge­ria in­ter­na­tional re­calls that pe­riod vividly when FourFourTwo meets him at the King Power Sta­dium, the set­ting for many of the 25-year-old’s daz­zling high­lights as one of the Premier League’s stand­out play­ers this sea­son. “They said: ‘We can’t [sign you], be­cause we’d have to give you a good con­tract and we don’t know if you de­serve that’,” Mahrez re­calls with a know­ing smile. “I’d been with them for one month by then – I didn’t know how they could say that. They didn’t say it in the be­gin­ning. I had got used to play­ing with the team. They said they wanted to keep me but would have to check with the boss to see if he agreed. They spoke with him… and he did.” Mahrez joined Quim­per along­side Mathias Pogba, younger brother of Ju­ven­tus dynamo Paul and fu­ture Crewe Alexandra striker, who be­came his flat­mate in an apart­ment pro­vided by the French club. First, though, Mahrez was sent to play with their sev­enth-tier B team. It seemed they still weren’t en­tirely con­vinced. “He was a street player who had taught him­self foot­ball in his neigh­bour­hood,” re­called for­mer coach Mick­ael Pellen. “It was both an ad­van­tage and a dis­ad­van­tage: good be­cause he was an ex­cel­lent drib­bler, com­fort­able with both feet and al­ready very good at set-pieces, but a dis­ad­van­tage be­cause on a tac­ti­cal level he knew noth­ing.” Mahrez’s un­ques­tion­able tech­ni­cal abil­ity had seen him this far, but Quim­per were con­cerned about his slight frame and knew he needed tough­en­ing up. To Mahrez, it was merely a mildly an­noy­ing con­tin­u­a­tion of what doubters had al­ways told him. “I used to play with older boys, al­ways,” the Foxes trick­ster tells FFT. “When I was 15 or 16 I’d play with 20-year-olds, and when I was 20, maybe with 25-year-olds. It helped me. It does not make me sad or any­thing, look­ing back. “How did I prove them wrong? Just with my abil­ity, my qual­ity. They would say those things, then we’d play a game, I’d play well

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