Following in the steps of Madjer, Brahimi has the world at his feet
Some players can be hesitant when offered to wear the shirt of a legend. Not so Yacine Brahimi.
Given the No. 8 at FC Porto that was famously sported by Rabah Madjer during the European Cup Final in 1987, he was thrilled rather than cautious. Such a choice could lead to exceedingly high expectations from the new Algerian, who was unavoidably compared to the genius who scored the exquisite, back-heel goal against Bayern Munich and then assisted the winner to bring the first international trophy to Estadio do Dragao.
Just three months later, Brahimi is already a crowd favourite, possibly on his way to emulate -- or even surpass -- his great compatriot.
Last week was especially productive for the tricky left winger. First, he was the hero in the impressive 2-0 win at Athletic Bilbao in the Champions League that made qualification for the next round virtually certain. Brahimi provided an assist to Jackson Martinez after a phenomenal dribble that made the Basque defence look terribly amateurish, then pounced on a mistake to score himself -- slotting into an empty net. That goal was his fifth in Europe already this season, following a free kick into the top corner versus Lille in the qualifying round and a hat trick versus BATE Borisov.
Then, on Sunday, Brahimi netted a superb goal in a 2-2 draw at Estoril. That was his second in the Portuguese League -- the first was an even better effort when he fooled four defenders with a couple of sharp changes of direction before firing the ball into the far corner from the edge of the penalty area.
The move was somewhat reminiscent of Ronaldinho, and that is no coincidence. Brahimi grew up dreaming to become a star like the Brazilian idol, while his other hero was Zinedine Zidane. He spent long hours watching them on video and trying to reproduce their tricks when playing with his friends in Paris suburbs.
"They were the ones who made me want to play football and pushed me to work on my technique," the 24-year-old told FIFA.com this year.
That technique has been polished to make Brahimi one of the best dribblers in Europe, especially when running with the ball at full speed. He amazingly averaged 4.9 dribbles per game last season when playing for Granada, putting him top of La Liga, ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
Best of Champions League Matchday 4
- Miller: Champions League Team of the Week
- Brassell: Bayern secure round of 16 spot
- Palmer: Three Points -- Maribor 1-1 Chelsea
- ESPN FC TV: Is Pellegrini in trouble at Man City?
- WATCH: Ibraimi's amazing strike vs. Chelsea
- Tomas: Barca player ratings vs. Ajax
- Brewin: Three Points -- Arsenal 3-3 Anderlecht
- Corrigan: Three Points -- Real Madrid 1-0 Liverpool
- Johnson: Group qualification permutations
That's where comparisons to Arjen Robben would be quite natural, but it must be said that the Algerian is more unpredictable than the Dutchman. While Robben likes to cut inside from the right to use his stronger left foot, Brahimi enjoys doing so from the left, though that is far from his only option.
Naturally right-footed, he is very good with his left as well, making him extremely difficult to mark. He is also useful as a playmaker, often positioned centrally behind the strikers at Rennes, his first club.
Brahimi's talent was clear for all to see ever since he studied at the famous Clairefontaine academy as a teenager. He joined Rennes at the advice of his parents, but coach Frederic Antonetti didn't always trust his moody prodigy. After sending him on loan to second-division Clermont in 2009-10, Antonetti remarked: "We count on Brahimi. He is creative and powerful."
However, the youngster started only 20 games over the two seasons in Brittany, and poor attitude didn't help his cause.
"Yacine took Ligue 1 by storm, scored brilliant goals and showed incredible moves but then became complacent and fell into the usual trap for overtalented youngsters of trying too hard to make it all by himself," says local journalist Bastien Leclair of Stade Rennais Online.
"His form started to dip, and he showed tactical limits, as well as difficulties to make good use of the ball and of his teammates when unable to make the difference.
"That's why Antonetti benched him, and the less he played, the more frustration he showed. When the conflict reached the press, Rennes decided to put Yacine on transfer list, only to discover that there were no buyers."
Brahimi was eventually loaned out to Granada in the summer of 2012, and the Andalusians made the transfer permanent a year later for just four million euros, using a buyout clause.
It was around that time Brahimi decided to drop his dream of playing for France and switched to Algeria, the homeland of his parents. He represented Les Bleus at all the youth levels and was influential during the European under-19 championship in 2009 in Ukraine, scoring a crucial winner against Spain and helping the team to reach the semifinals, in which they lost to England.
Algeria coach Rabah Saadane was very keen on him back in 2010, but Brahimi asked for time to think things over. It took him three years to do so, and, finally, The Fennecs, whose squad is almost entirely built around players born in France, got their man.
"I am a Porto player. I've only just arrived here, and I'm not thinking about other options. Of course, every player dreams of playing for a big club, but we'll have to wait for the right time for it."
The prize was immense. Brahimi helped Algeria to qualify for the World Cup, although his relationship with coach Vahid Halilhodzic was not always ideal. The Bosnian tactician liked to change the lineup according to opponents, and many times Brahimi found himself on the bench. In Brazil, he was left out entirely during the opener versus Belgium and entered the field on only 78 minutes in the second-round clash with Germany.
When he played, though, his contribution was phenomenal. Brahimi was one of the biggest stars when Algeria took South Korea apart, scoring their last goal in a 4-2 win. He also assisted Islam Slimani, who headed one of the most important goals in Algeria history to make it 1-1 against hapless Russia and allowing Algeria to survive the group stage at the World Cup for the first time ever. Endless energy, superb vision and countless tricks made Brahimi a joy to watch, and top clubs around Europe sat and took notice.
Spanish fans knew all about it beforehand. Brahimi's second season at Granada went very well, as he outdribbled everyone and made huge headlines when scoring a winner against Barcelona in April. Statistics weren't so flattering as far as goals and assists are concerned, but he has done enough to be officially crowned the best African player in the league, much to the disgust of Valencia, who believed that his compatriot, Sofiane Feghouli, should have won it.
Ironically, that was the first season Brahimi was eligible for the prize -- he simply wasn't considered African at all in 2012-13.
As Porto appointed a Spaniard, Julen Lopetegui, as coach for the new season, it is hardly surprising he instructed the club to do everything possible to sign Brahimi after the World Cup. The deal was duly reached in July for six million euros, and the Algerian wizard signed a five-year contract with the Dragons, only to be almost immediately linked with a move away from Portugal. The hype is growing, and there is little wonder, taking seven goals and seven assists in 15 games in all competitions into account.
Tottenham are reportedly interested, as are Napoli, who might be especially keen to sign him in January now that Lorenzo Insigne's season is sadly over. Paris Saint-Germain are also linked, as they are to almost every talented player imaginable, and a move to his hometown could possibly be of interest to the midfielder.
However, Brahimi stated in a recent interview to Le Buteur: "I am a Porto player. I have only just arrived here, and I am not thinking about other options. Of course, every player dreams of playing for a big club, but we will have to wait for the right time for it."
At the moment, the Algerian enjoys perfect harmony with all of his coaches. "Brahimi gets better with each passing day, and I am sure he will keep evolving, becoming an even more complete player," Lopetegui said.
As for the national team, Yacine is much happier with new coach Christian Gourcuff, whose training sessions are more relaxed than those of Halilhodzic. He hopes to make the difference at his first African Cup of Nations, for which Algeria have already qualified.
It remains to be seen whether Brahimi is capable of keeping the momentum and performing against top opposition -- the game versus Benfica in mid-December will be a tough test. If he is, sky is the limit for a player of his talent, and he could indeed become the ultimate heir to Madjer before continuing his meteoric rise elsewhere.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin