For a league whose clubs have more money than they seemingly know what to do with, the English Premier League is a horrible underachiever.
No EPL player made the 2015 FIFPro Best
XI. Indeed, you have to go all the way back to 2011 to find an EPL player on the world team of the year, two of them: Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic
and Wayne Rooney
. Just 10 players
were on the 55-player short list in 2015, down from 20 in 2012.
But that seeming dearth of talent only explains in part how a player playing in the French second division just two years
ago could be named the English soccer's player of the year. Leicester City's Algerian international, Riyad Mahrez
, is the 2015-16 honoree by the Professional Footballers' Association.
The 25-year-old Mahrez is the first Leicester City player and first African to win the award, having scored 17 goals and added 11 assists in 34 EPL games. Several other players on the PFA short
list weren't exactly household names in English soccer before this season. Leicester teammates Jamie Vardy
and N'Golo Kante
and West Ham United's Dimitri Payet
come to mind.
But Mahrez was the bargain-basement signing, costing the Foxes $500,000 when they acquired him from French second division club Le Havre two years ago. He has always had to win over
Mahrez was born and raised in France to North African immigrants, but pro recruiters thought he was too frail and ignored him. He finally signed at fourth division Quimper in
2009, but his coach feared Mahrez couldn't handle the punishment.
When Mahrez signed with Leicester from Le Havre at the beginning of 2014, he knew nothing about the club or city, and his
family questioned the move, believing he couldn't handle the physicality of English soccer and suggesting he move to Spain instead.
Mahrez's break came when Vahid Halilhodzic
coach of Algeria's national team, picked him for the 2014 World Cup even though he had never played for Algeria, where his father grew up. Because Leicester's League Championship season ended before
other leagues did, Halilhodzic got to work with Mahrez before the other Fennecs arrived for camp.
"I discovered a great kid who loved to talk and laugh," said Halilhodzic. "I worked a lot
with him individually, and he was enthusiastic." Mahrez only played in Algeria's opening game, a 2-1 loss to Belgium, but it was great experience. "One good match in the World Cup is worth 50 good
league matches," said Halilhodzic, who now coaches Japan's national team.
No one ever
questioned Mahrez's work ethic, from his childhood days in Sarcelles, a poor immigrant community, where he'd stay outside until 11 o'clock at night and kick a ball against the side of a building.
That work ethic carried over to his move to Leicester City. At first, he struggled emotionally with the beating he was taking. But his Leicester coaches say he soon learned when to take
opponents on and when it was wise to avoid a challenge.
Mahrez thanked his fellow players and coaches for the PFA award.
"All the credit is for them, seriously," Mahrez said
at the awards dinner on Sunday. "And for my manager and the staff. Without them, I wouldn't receive this award, and I wouldn't score. It's the team spirit, and I want to dedicate it to them."
Even other African greats like Didier Drogba and Yaya Toure didn't win the award.
"It's an honor to be the first African," Mahrez added. "Not the best but the