Comment: Riyad Mahrez, another talented schmuck scooped up in a Manchester City transfer simply for the sake of it
A small crowd had gathered outside the main entrance of the Etihad Stadium to watch the unveiling of Riyad Mahrez as a Manchester City player. It consisted of several selfie-hunting kids, roughly the same number of patient parents, a shirtless bloke who wanted Mahrez to autograph his back, and a pair of terrifying-looking furry aliens called Moonchester and Moonbeam dressed neck to toe in box-fresh Nike, who were either City’s official club mascots or the visitations of a particularly lurid cheese nightmare that were visible to me and me alone. It wouldn’t be the first time. For days I’ve been trying to convince friends and family that I saw Harry Maguire playing in central defence for England at the World Cup. “Yes, of course he is,” they replied. Ever get the feeling you’re being gaslit by your loved ones?
If the existence of Moonchester and Moonbeam remains largely conjecture, then Mahrez’s arrival at the Etihad feels real enough. A transfer that somehow feels like it has been in gestation since towards the end of the Paleolithic Age – when Mahrez himself was just a glint in Wyscout’s eye – Mahrez to City marks the latest minor milestone in an era where the biggest clubs are not merely giants but predators, not merely bright stars but black holes, with a gravitational field from which not even the world’s 14th-richest club can escape.
The first thing to be said here is that City don’t need Mahrez. They might think they do, but they don’t really. They might argue that he fills some essential, gaping flaw in their collective front-five skillset that somehow Raheem Sterling, Bernardo Silva, Leroy Sane, Kevin de Bruyne, Gabriel Jesus, David Silva, Sergio Aguero and Ilkay Gundogan don’t already address. They might even, at a boardroom level, explain how the signing of the club’s first Arabic-speaking superstar (and it’s telling that his first interview with the club website was shown with Arabic subtitles) is a perfect synergy with the brand’s MENA marketing strategy, and produce the graphs to prove it.
But when you boil it down, the only reason City are really signing Mahrez is because they can. It’s the eighth sports car in your driveway, it’s the gold leaf monogram on your Bottega Veneta suitcase, it’s ordering extra pepperoni on your triple-pepperoni pizza. And that’s why, even if this is just one of hundreds of examples of big clubs picking off the best talent from lower down the chain, this transfer feels particularly wanton, particularly gratuitous, the footballing equivalent of raising both middle fingers to the neighbours, just so they can see the rose gold rings you’re wearing on each.
For his part, Mahrez might think he needs City, but even then: not that much. He may try and rationalise it as ambition, upward mobility, self-improvement, the chance to help the team and win trophies, the things your agent tells you to say in press conferences. And there’s no question that the view of Pep Guardiola’s high-pressing amusement park from beyond its gilded gates must look terribly alluring. Presumably this is why he agitated so hard for a move in January: if you can’t beat them, go on strike until the club to which you are contracted for another two years lets you join them.
But whatever he goes on to win at City won’t remotely compare to the scale and the satisfaction of what he achieved at Leicester, where he was a major part of the most unlikely title-winning campaign in the history of English football. His legacy there is already secure. And for all the rancour over his departure, the reaction among Leicester fans has been impressively mature, although his comments about Maguire in his opening press conference (“He deserves to play higher, but Leicester is a good club as well”) may not have been the best start. Mahrez was a god at Leicester. Now he’s just another talented schmuck warming the padded car seats of the superclub subs bench, hoping people notice him.
Of course, you will argue, this is just the way football is these days, and naturally you’re right. Nobody seriously expects a player of Mahrez’s talent to spurn a big move to a big club, a hefty pay rise, the opportunity to work with the most dynamic coach in the world. Nobody seriously expects a club of City’s ambition to pass up an opportunity to cement their dominance of English football, to weaken a rival, to supplement their already enviable array of attacking options. It would just be nice every once in a while if this wasn’t the case. But then, maybe that’s just the cheese talking.