The Blues and the Desert Foxes

Vincent Labrune wrote the e-mail just before midnight on Dec. 30, 2014. The president of French soccer club Olympique Marseille had been asked to comment on two Algerian players that his scouts had noticed abroad. According to France Football, he wrote back:

Do you really think that players from Leicester and USM Alger can have a place today at OM, in our project? Briefly, to save time, let me specify that we try to be professional and qualitative in terms of recruitment, and as a result the chance that we’d take players of this sort are exactly zero.

Who knows just what went into Labrune’s acerbic evaluation? Maybe he didn’t think the players would fit Marseille’s system. Maybe he didn’t think it’d be worth the time and expense to scout these players more fully. Or maybe there was more to it than merely soccer.

Whatever Labrune felt, facts are facts. And the facts are that Riyad Mahrez, the Leicester City striker that Labrune blew off, has electrified the English Premier League this year.


Mahrez has cooled off a bit recently, but he’s still scored 13 goals in 19 games, well ahead of Wayne Rooney, Eden Hazard, Harry Kane — name your superstar. He’s tied for 3rd in assists. He and Jamie Vardy — whose 15 goals are tied for the league lead — form the most fearsome forward pairing in the Premiership.

Leicester is second place with this topsy-turvy season just past its halfway mark, which means it has a realistic shot at winning the league. In August, bookmakers had rated their chances at <0.5%.

What’s the French phrase? Rira bien qui rira le dernier. He who laughs last, laughs best.

Also laughing: Algeria, which has Mahrez on its national squad. Mahrez grew up north of Paris, but he chose to play for Algeria’s les Fennecs — the Desert Foxes — last year, ending his eligibility for the French team.

That isn’t necessarily a political choice on his part. But after a year that’s wracked France, thrusting its issues with its Muslim and immigrant populations back to the fore, it takes on more symbolic weight.

“Football has produced the most significant moments of national unity and public celebration in France during the past decades,” historian Laurent Dubois writes in Football Empire. “Precisely for this reason the commentary and celebration that surround football have delved deep into the question of what France is, what it has been, and what it can become.”

Those questions remain painfully relevant after the 2015 that was. French Algerians were involved in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, and young, European-raised Muslims took part in the November attacks on the Bataclan Theater and Stade de France. As France reels from these national traumas, it’s also being forced to struggle again with its own notion of multiculturalism — and how it relates to Muslim communities that feel disenfranchised and disconnected from the French mainstream.


Being authentically “French” includes dimensions that would seem slightly foreign to most Americans. In this December video, a French-Algerian teenager argues that he doesn’t feel as French as someone whose father and grandfather were.

“Do you feel French?”, a Guardian reporter asked him. “Half,” he said. “But we’re not going to ignore our origin, either.”

Mahrez grew up in Sarcelles, a lower-middle-class town 10 miles north of Paris, son to an Algerian father and a Moroccan mother. Sarcelles, like any suburb, seldom makes the news. But in summer 2014, it belched out some of the lava that boils beneath the surface of French public life. A protest of Israeli policy, banned by the authorities, devolved into clashes with cops and attacks on Jewish-owned businesses and a synagogue.

Last January, after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, an NPR reporter noted that “Je suis Charlie” signs were absent from Sarcelles:

“People [here] think, we are not Charlie. Me, I am not Charlie!” says Sarcelles resident Abdel Nour, whose family straddles Sarcelles’ sectarian divide. “I’m Muslim, and my wife is a Jew — a Jew from Israel.”

It’s this community that Mahrez left in 2009 to start his pro career in the fourth division of French football. Though he demonstrated the touch of someone who’d grown up playing on cramped city blocks, scouts were skeptical that his wiry frame could excel at the highest levels. He rose to France’s second division before making a risky transfer to Leicester in 2014. At that time, the Foxes were fighting just to stay in England’s second tier.

No one expected them to become legitimate threats for the Premier League title. Its signing of manager Claudio Ranieri, lost in the news churn last summer, has proven pivotal. Even more so, Mahrez and Vardy have led a savage counterattack that has befuddled some of England’s finest defenders.

As many have fatefully discovered, Leicester lets its opponents control the ball — well north of 60 percent possession in many games — but once they get the ball, they flash forward like hyenas. Up front, its deadly duo works together — see Mahrez’ 7 assists, and Vardy scoring in 11 consecutive games this year, setting a Premier League record — and delivers ice-cold finishes.

Witness these dandies from a 2-1 defeat of Chelsea last month. There’s Mahrez to Vardy:

And Mahrez mesmerizing a defender:

In public, the 24-year-old Frenchman is soft-spoken, with a goofy grin, seeming almost embarrassed by his and Leicester’s sudden success.

Asked about Labrune’s comments at Marseille, Mahrez said, “He thinks what he thinks. I know what I am, I know what I’m doing in the football (sic), I know what I can do…the people who don’t know football — I don’t want to speak about them.”

As it must, the rumor mill has begun to churn: Mahrez is being sought by any of Barcelona, Manchester United, Arsenal, AS Roma, Villareal, etc. His coach claims, as he must, that neither Mahrez nor Vardy are going anywhere:

France can’t have him either. What makes Mahrez’ rise doubly galling for les Bleus is that they had a chance at him until last year. Mahrez was a reserve player for Algeria in last year’s World Cup, featuring in only one match. But playing in that match officially committed him to Algeria in international competition from now on.

Why Algeria and not France, where he grew up? Mahrez told The Guardian it had to do with his late father.

I used to go to Algeria on holiday every year with him and my brother. I have a lot of family there, I lived in France and grew up there and my mum still lives there but my heart is more Algerian.

He is hardly the only Frenchman to choose les Fennecs over les Bleus. Thanks to a 2009 FIFA rule change — spearheaded by an Algerian “strongman” — Algeria’s World Cup squad in 2014 was majority French-born: 17 of 23 players.

Dubois, of Duke, said players have complex reasons for choosing Algeria versus France. “But there are also players for whom this is definitely a cultural & political choice as well,” he said by e-mail. “This is true actually among some players on the women’s side as well, where there are a number of children of Algerian or Tunisian immigrants, including the star Louisa Necib.”

All of these dynamics remind us that nothing in European football occurs in a vacuum. Immigrants have provided France some of its greatest players ever. Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry both grew up in France, but they are of Algerian and French Antillean origin, respectively. Lilian Thuram was born in Guadeloupe. All three were foundational to France’s 1998 World Cup victory, a squad whose diversity signaled, to some, the promise of a more united France.

What’s the status on that? Ask Karim Benzema, a star striker on France’s squad (for now): “Basically, if I score, I’m French. And if I don’t score or there are problems, I’m Arab.”

Mahrez could have weighed many factors when choosing les Fennecs. Maybe he thought France wouldn’t give him a shot. Maybe he thought Algeria would give him more stylistic freedom. Maybe he really wanted to honor his father, who died nearly a decade ago and could never see his son rise.

Whatever Mahrez’ motivations, it can’t be avoided: his emergence ties into a decades-old political tête à tête. No matter his aw-shucks demeanor, given what he is doing, at the time he is doing it, his story fits into a larger one. He may play for humble Leicester, but he plays on a global stage.

Cover photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images, additional photo: Reuters.

thumb_Saqib-RahimSAQIB RAHIM | @SaqibSansU

Like many fans, Saqib Rahim is the product of his sports traumas. Saqib is a 2015 Dat Winning Fellow.

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