Special ones

What does  Didier Drogba, Nwanko Kanu, Lauren Etame-Mayer,  Michael Essien, John Mikel Obi and Kolo and Yaya Toure have in common?

They are  all famous African footballers who have left an indelible mark in the English Premier League.

More importantly, they have been proud ambassadors of their countries, representing their African national teams with distinction in an era in which others have switched allegiance to European states.

What else do these African footballers have in common?

They have  all won the league title in England, perhaps the toughest domestic football competition in the world.

Chelsea's Ivorian striker Didier Drogba wears the crown holding a camera as he poses during the presentation of the Premier League trophy after the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge in London on May 24, 2015. Photo: ANP/AFP Adrian Dennis

Chelsea’s Ivorian striker Didier Drogba wears the crown holding a camera as he poses during the presentation of the Premier League trophy after the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Sunderland at Stamford Bridge in London on May 24, 2015. Photo: ANP/AFP Adrian Dennis

Now, add Riyad Mahrez to that illustrious list.

The fact that Mahrez is an African winner of the EPL title passed rather unnoticed.

But that is exactly how his club, Leicester City, also went about its business on its way to win the 2015-16 Premier league title, one of the greatest sporting stories of all time.

Mahrez, who was born in France, has represented Algeria 26 times.

Rubbing shoulders with the best

Last week, together with team mate Jamie Vardy,  Mahrez was nominated for the 2016 Fifa player of the year award alongside the modern-day greats of the game, Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

Last season, Mahrez had an incredible season for the Foxes and was one of the stars of the team’s  title success.

Barcelona's Lionel Messi (C) celebrates with temmates Neymar (C, back), Denis Suarez (R) and Sergio Busquets (L) after scoring the winning goal during the Spanish Primera Division match between Valencia FC and Barcelona FC held at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain, 22 October 2016.  Photo: ANP EPA/Juan Carlos Cardenas

Barcelona’s Lionel Messi (C) celebrates with temmates Neymar (C, back), Denis Suarez (R) and Sergio Busquets (L) after scoring the winning goal during the Spanish Primera Division match between Valencia FC and Barcelona FC held at the Mestalla stadium in Valencia, Spain, 22 October 2016. Photo: ANP EPA/Juan Carlos Cardenas

As a winger he scored an incredible 18 goals and assisted 10 times as Leicester won a historic Premier League championship.

Star attraction at Afcon

Mahrez will feature for Algeria at January’s Africa Cup of Nations finals in Gabon.

Without doubt, he will be one of the leading individual star attractions at the tournament.

Algeria have been pooled in Group B with Senegal, Tunisia and Zimbabwe in what many have termed the “group of death.”

Mahrez the man

Riyad Mahrez was born in Sarcelles, France, 25 years ago – the son of an Algerian father and mother of both Algerian and Moroccan extraction.

His loyalty to his country of origin was due to that he was often sent to spend his school holidays in Algeria.

Riyad received the heaviest blow of his life when, aged 15, his father, a former footballer back home in Algeria, died of a heart attack.

The loss of his father prompted him to take life more seriously. Football was his escape.

He was groomed at youth club AAS Sarcelles before turning professional in 2009 with Quimper and then Le Havre- both clubs are from France.

Mahrez joined Leicester in 2014 when the club was in the second-tier of English football. He helped them win promotion into the EPL the following year.

Early controversy

Mahrez, by virtue of being born in France, also qualified to play for the French national team.

His decision to go the Algerian route initially courted controversy.

Algerian player  Mahrez Riad  (L)  fights for the ball with Cameroonian player Oyongo Bitolo Amroise  (R) during the World Cup 2018 football qualification match between Algeria and Cameroon at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida south of Algiers, Algeria, 09 October 2016. Photo: EPA/ANP

Algerian player Mahrez Riad (L) fights for the ball with Cameroonian player Oyongo Bitolo Amroise (R) during the World Cup 2018 football qualification match between Algeria and Cameroon at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida south of Algiers, Algeria, 09 October 2016. Photo: EPA/ANP

He was called up by Algeria before the 2014 World Cup, eventually making it into the final squad that travelled to Brazil.

Algerian media accused Mahrez of bribing Bosnian coach Vahid Halilhodzic for a place in the squad. The reporters argued that Mahrez had chosen Algeria only because they were going to the World Cup, and that the decision was because he didn’t think he would ever play for France.

Halilhodzic, now coaching Japan, feels vindicated.

In a recent interview with goal.com, he remarked: “I cannot describe what I experienced from the media after that (Mahrez inclusion). There was no common sense in their criticism – some even claimed I took money from Riyad to take him to the World Cup!

“Of course, he was not at the level he is today, but it doesn’t surprise me how good he is in the Premier League. He’s the kind of player that makes a difference. A modern, fantastic player. I knew I didn’t make a mistake in calling him up.”

Algeria and football

Football is the number one sport in Algeria, Africa’s largest country.

It’s a national pastime in this country, a regional power in North Africa which supplies large amounts of natural gas to Europe. Football enjoys some of this money through development programmes run by the national association.

Algeria's national football team players look on prior to the Fifa World Cup 2018 Africa qualifying football match between Algeria and Cameroon at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida on October 9, 2016. Photo: ANP/ AFP Ryad Kramdi

Algeria’s national football team players look on prior to the Fifa World Cup 2018 Africa qualifying football match between Algeria and Cameroon at the Mustapha Tchaker Stadium in Blida on October 9, 2016. Photo: ANP/ AFP Ryad Kramdi

Algeria is the only North African team to go to the last two World Cups, a source of enormous pride for the nation.

The Desert Foxes (Algeria’s nickname) are the third highest ranked African team in the world after the Ivory Coast and Senegal.

Following Mahrez’s exploits for Leicester last season, manager Claudio Ranieri signed another Algerian, Islam Slimani, at the beginning of the current season.

On Sunday, Slimani scored in Leicester’s 1-0 home defeat to West Brom.

But with such talent in their midst, Algeria will continue to be the torchbearer of football up north. At least in the foreseeable future.