Ten months ago, 32-year-old left-footed Algerian winger Riyad joined Saudi Arabia’s Al Ahli in a deal that was considered a coup for the Jeddah club, all things considered.
The Riyad in question was former Real Betis and Saint-Etienne player Riyad Boudebouz. At the time of his arrival, Al Ahli were just about to embark on their first campaign in the second tier of Saudi football, having suffered a humiliating relegation just six years after winning a third league title.
Fast forward to July 2023, another 32-year-old left-footed Algerian winger arrives in a stunning deal for the Jeddah powerhouse. This time it was the Manchester City’s magician Riyad Mahrez.
It reflects just how much things have changed for Al Ahli within a year. In many ways their story is the perfect embodiment of the transformation engulfing Saudi football nowadays.
Boudebouz did his job perfectly, helping Al Ahli to a swift return to their natural habitat, but the real boost of fortunes, unthinkable a year ago, came with the acquisition of 75 per cent of the club by the Public Investment Fund (PIF) alongside fellow traditional heavyweights Al Hilal, Al Nassr and Al Ittihad.
The subsequent spending spree saw Al Ahli bolster their ranks with the likes of Chelsea and Senegal goalkeeper Edouard Mendy, winner of the 2021 Fifa Best Goalkeeper of the Year award, Liverpool striker Roberto Firmino and most recently Newcastle United’s flamboyant winger, Allan Saint-Maximin.
But it is the Algerian who stands out in terms of profile and ability to take Al Ahli to the next level both on and off the pitch.
For all its troubles and conflicts, the Arab world, spanning the area from Oman on the Indian Ocean to Morocco on the Atlantic, has often been united in support of its sports heroes.
When Mahrez’s compatriot, Rabah Madjer, scored with a back-heel to lead Porto to win the 1987 European Cup, he became a household name in all of the 22 nations of the region long before the age of social media.
The impact of collective euphoria experienced by nearly 200 million people has been evident over the years, from Nawal El Moutawakel’s Olympic gold medal in the 400m hurdles at Los Angeles 1984 to Saeed Al Owairan’s miracle goal against Belgium at the World Cup a decade later.
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But, as recently as 10 years ago, the closest the region has come to having a recognised name within mainstream European football were the relative successes of Noureddine Naybet in the 2001 La Liga winning Deportivo La Coruna side and the controversy voyages of Mido from Ajax to Tottenham to Roma.
Enter Mahrez. Having already represented his country at the 2014 World Cup, the skilful winger got his big break at Leicester City, where he captured the imagination of football fans around the world as part of a deadly duo with Jamie Vardy that took the small side from the East Midlands from the brink of relegation to a Premier League title. It remains one of the greatest underdog stories in modern sporting history.
A big-money move to Manchester City saw him rack up four more Premier League titles and join Madjer in becoming a European champion. If his status was in any doubt, he established himself in 2019 as arguably the greatest player in the history of Algeria, the Arab world’s largest and third most populous nation, scoring the winning goal against Nigeria to lead them to Africa Cup of Nations final. Algeria eventually lifted the trophy for the second time in their history.
It is safe to say that alongside Egypt and Liverpool star Mohamed Salah, Mahrez has redefined what it means to be a successful Arab athlete over the course of the past decade or so, and Al Ahli stand to benefit from the mythical status of their new talisman in many ways.
Of the dozen or so big names that have made the switch from European football to the Saudi Pro League this summer, only Karim Benzema has more social media followers than the Mahrez’s 28 million. Indeed, Mohamed Salah is the only other Arab athlete who commands more followers on the internet, and debates on who is the greatest Arab player of all time have increasingly tended to focus on the pair.
Al Ahli have started to experience a taste of Mahrez's impact even before he has set foot on the pitch, with their social media followers growing by half a million over the course of just a few days.
Back in 2014, when Mahrez was just making his name with Leicester City, Al Ahli signed another Arab player who became their greatest of all time. Syrian striker Omar Al Somah left the Jeddah club earlier this summer having become the Saudi Pro League’s all-time top scorer, won the league’s golden boot award three times and led Al Ahli to end a 32-year wait for a league title in 2015/16, the same season Mahrez helped to bring about the Leicester miracle.
Now the baton passes from Al Somah to Mahrez, whose task it will be to help Al Ahli make the same jump the Saudi Pro League itself is aspiring to make over the next few years – to the very top.