Former Algeria skipper Madjid Bougherra has lifted the lid on the “crazy ambitions” that carried Riyad Mahrez from World Cup 2014 mystery man, to international superstardom.
Mahrez, 28, came into the global tournament on the back of a half-season at – then – Championship outfit Leicester City and with just two Fennecs caps to his name. The extravagantly talented winger, however, used his start in the opening group game against Belgium as a springboard.
This journey would include shock Premier League joy with the Foxes in 2015/16, the 2016 CAF African Footballer of the Year gong, a club-record £60 million move to Manchester City in July 2018 and a cherished 2019 Africa Cup of Nations charge.
“He is not big [physically], but he’s big,” Bougherra jokes when talking to Sport360 at Fujairah – the side he now manages in the Arabian Gulf League.
“I remember when he was at the World Cup in 2014. It was his first selection with Algeria.
“He was eating with us and then he’d say: ‘Guys, I have some crazy ambitions that you do not know’.
“He’d be like: ‘I want to play for Barcelona, I want to play here etc’ and we’d be like: ‘okay, play here first’.
“He was in the second division with Leicester. But it is not like nobody trusted him, from there he had this character.
“Now, he’s the best Arabic player with Mohamed Salah. He’s fantastic.
“I am very happy for him and for our country, it is fantastic.”
Mahrez has left a trail of bemused full-backs in his wake. A strong 2019/20 has included six assists and five goals in 17 Premier League run-outs in City’s faltering title defence, while he helped lay waste to rivals Manchester United in Tuesday’s League Cup semi-final opener.
Former Rangers defender Bougherra revealed how complex the challenge is when his countryman is running rampant.
“You can ask him, but it’s okay for me,” he quips. “All the time I catch him, he never passes me in training.
“I know him very well. Many times I faced him.
“When you know him, you never know if he’ll do this one [gestures a movement left], or come inside.
“Like I said to my friends, it is like he has a hand for a foot. He has a fantastic, amazing touch.”
A nation – and vast diaspora – was united in joy last summer when Algeria defeated Senegal in the AFCON final. Their charge to the showpiece included Mahrez’s 95th-minute free-kick that earned a dramatic 2-1 victory against Nigeria.
Bougherra, 37, played in two World Cups and two African events, across his 70 caps. His pride at Algeria’s summer success remained fervent.
He said: “I am proud, especially as they had many players that I played with. Our country, we passed the perfect time for the players, the fans.
“I am very proud for the coach, [Djamel] Belmadi. He is the one who opened the doors for me, showed me the job and how to work.
“Amazing for all of us.”
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