Antoine Griezmann: The Winner Who’s Forced To Keep Waiting

STADE DE FRANCE, Saint Denis, 10th of June 2016. France play Portugal in the final of the European Championships with a nationwide celebration looming. There was no way the hosts would throw away this glorious chance of winning their first honour since the year of the millennium. Images of the famous French blue hoisting the Henri Delaunay Cup glistened in the minds of the 75,000 in attendance.

109 minutes in, Eder, a forward with just 66 goals across a decade-long career struck to break French hearts. Each player and fan sporting the blue was equally as distraught, for this supreme generation of talent that had impressed throughout this month-long extravaganza of football, had failed. One man was arguably more heart than the rest of the team as this was the second successive defeat in a major European final. The first came just a little over a month prior, but this one, coming while representing his national colours was the more malicious.

He sported the number seven on his back, was the top scorer and Player of the Tournament and proved his worth to millions worldwide, but it meant nothing. For one Antoine Griezmann, those two months where he lost the UEFA Champions League final as well as the Euro 2016 final, he had the most disheartening phase of his career. A player of magnificent ability with the mind-set of a perennial winner, Griezmann’s trophy haul at the age of 27 is exceptionally small. And just like his search for silverware, throughout his career, he has been forced to wait.

The French commune of Mâcon is well known for its wine and timeless architecture, but ever since Antoine Griezmann burst onto the scene, the town has enjoyed greater attention. Mâcon, however, is just Griezmann’s birth place and area where he was bred, the footballing prominence about 830 kilometres west in the Basque Country, sporting the blue and white of Real Sociedad. Right from a young age, Griezmann was always a gifted individual and it was a case of genetics and hereditary growth that required him to move to Spain rather than start at home.

While in France, Griezmann tried but failed to obtain trials with the local sides, with nearby Olympique Lyon amongst many that vetoed him due to his size. His desire was always to be a footballer and despite the hindrances, he never gave up on the dream. His potential was finally realised and sought after following impressive showings in a friendly tournament with Real Sociedad desperately wanting to take him and improve him amongst their ranks.

His mother was obviously reluctant to send him across the border. Clearly, moving across countries to a wholly different world would take its tone, but La Real offered their assurances. In Spain, amongst a host of stars that were about the same size as him, it would make sense that he would develop better here than back at home. What did set him apart at the Zubieta academy was his nationality.

Coming from France to a club that had only recently relaxed their non-Basque players policy, he would certainly attract more attention. However, with the lack of true home comforts far away, Griezmann was in a tough situation at times, as his scout and former advisor, Eric Olhats, explains: Yes, two or three times [asked if ever had feelings of homesickness]. He cried and had bad times. I talked to him, calmed him down and told him that if he thought the same thing the next morning, I would take him to his parents. [It] Never happened. He got up and had a huge desire to go to training. His passion for football has allowed him to overcome all obstacles.”     

And he was right, training and working with the team did put his emotional distress to the side. The dream of making it as a professional kept him afloat and he continuously impressed at the youth teams. But his rise coincided with a period of instability at the club following the sales of several key stars over the years, avid mismanagement on and off the pitch and a failure in the search of stability that resulted in relegation in 2007 and three subsequent seasons in the second tier of Spanish football.

It was Uruguayan coach Martín Lasarte that gave Griezmann his first chance at senior football, promoting him straight from the youth teams at the start of the 2009/10 season after injury problems had depleted his options in the wings. And in the second division, Griezmann adapted well, scoring on his first professional start against Huesca, an excellent right-footed drive from outside the box. The 18-year-old had hit the ground running in incredible fashion, and he would make that spot on the left-wing his own that season.

By the time his first season ended, he would add five more goals to his tally in 38 more appearances, drawing the curtains on a remarkable breakthrough season where La Real finished as champions and achieved promotion. Still the frail figure that would ideally have been rejected by most clubs, Griezmann’s improved form brought along the antithesis in the summer, as several clubs from home including FC Sochaux-Montbeliard, Montpellier HSC and his local side Lyon were interested in bringing him back, but no move materialised.

That season also saw him gain recognition from his country, as the rapid winger was called up for France’s under-19s setup, and later was part of the roster that hosted and won the U19 European Championships, amongst a side including Alexandre Lacazette, Francis Coquelin and Clément Grenier. Griezmann’s brace against Austria in the group stages were his only goals of the tournament as the attacking arrangement of Lacazette and Cédric Bakambu did most of the damage.

After initially struggling to settle in, things were finally working out well for Antoine Griezmann. A winner at international level and a champion of the second division in Spain, things were destined to go well for the Frenchman. His first two seasons in La Liga, still as a teenager and an early adult, saw him carry the form that had made him such a prominent youth figure. Each year, he bested the tally from the last in terms of goals and appearances, scoring seven in 2010-11 and eight in 2011-12 including a few scorchers against the likes of Malaga and Barcelona. His stock was rising, but the following season saw it peak.

Real Sociedad had a talented team that featured some exceptional quality. Players like Claudio Bravo in goal, and Xabi Prieto and Carlos Vela supporting the attack obviously made Griezmann a better player and in the 2012-13 season, in their third campaign following promotion, they would finish fourth, thus qualifying for the Champions League. This clearly came as a surprise to most La Liga fans, seeing as the club were content in the lower half of the table, but here was an opportunity to add to their mettle and for the players to polish their CVs.

His partnership with Vela was one of the most sparkling duos in Spain that season. Often playing on either wing, the two used their technical prowess to perfection and were the plugs that kept La Real ticking. Vela had the greater output, but that didn’t overshadow the effort Griezmann put in to make this team one of the most exciting in Spain.

But while that season did see him improve drastically, perhaps a significant blow came in the form of his forced exile from the international setup. In November 2012, Griezmann and a few teammates were spotted partying in a Paris nightclub when they were supposed to be with the national team’s U21 squad at their base. This resulted in a hefty penalty for the youngster – a one-year ban from all national team activities, delaying his chances of what would have been a deserved senior team call-up. Nevertheless, just like some hindrances while he was a youth, he never let this one get the better of him, and he carried on his rich vein of form.

At the start of the following season in the Champions League play-off rounds, Griezmann came home to Lyon, and it was there that he saw his own moment of redemption against the club that turned him down eight years prior. He would score a stunning overhead kick at the Stade Gerland to help La Real on their way to a 4-0 aggregate win and qualify for the competition proper of the Champions League. That part, however, went haywire as they finished bottom of their group that contained Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and Shakhtar Donetsk, earning just one point from a home draw with the Red Devils.

The season domestically was different. Although the club failed to replicate the heroics of the previous campaign, Griezmann was making progress and finished as the club’s top scorer. His role evolved, playing more centrally and giving himself the space to stay closer to goal. And even his partner in crime switched from Vela to Swiss forward Haris Seferović as the combination of brawn and briskness gave the side an explosive combination. His form was making waves worldwide, and in the summer of 2014, progress came in a twofold.

The first came in the form of an international call-up for the French roster heading out to Brazil for the World Cup. This was a testament to his willingness following the international ban, and in this tournament, he had an important role to play following injury concerns and the subsequent withdrawal of primary winger, Franck Ribéry. Although he didn’t score at the tournament, he played well and bagged his first international goals in the pre-tournament warm-ups. It was becoming clearer that Real Sociedad wasn’t the place for him to be at anymore and that very summer, the second part of the progression came by.

Atlético Madrid, the La Liga side who have had a catalogue of world class forwards developing from their conveyor belt plucked Griezmann from the Basque Country and brought him to the capital as they entered a new era. That year’s Champions League finalists and La Liga winners, just like Griezmann, had made great progress in that era and brought in the Frenchman to replace the departing Diego Costa. What they had seen in the Frenchman ticked all their boxes – young, hungry, energetic and an all-round excellent football player.

For a player that was described as “too frail” by his local sides, the €30 million transfer fee spoke volumes about how he defied plenty. Griezmann was now more than just a footballer; he was becoming an icon with his mainstream laid-back attitude and connection with his respective fanbase. He even cites David Beckham as his hero, thus explaining his constant changes in hairstyles, his long-sleeved shirts and sporting one of the most epochal shirt numbers in the history of this sport wherever he plays – the famous number seven.

However, it wasn’t an easy transition from the blue-and-white to the red-and-white for Griezmann. For the first six months, he often got the goods but failed to impress. The early part of the season saw the club win the Spanish Super Cup, just his second major honour, but in the league, while the club was able to keep up with the rest of the pack, Griezmann was living by the benefit of the situation. Sure, it was difficult for the 23-year-old to settle into his new surroundings, and, most of the criticism was probably reactionary but this risk, for the first six months, didn’t look like it would be beneficiary in the long-run.

All those doubts were eventually erased. In December, he scored his first league hat-trick against his former club’s fierce rivals Athletic Bilbao and from there he just carried on until the end of the season. The club fell to Luis Enrique’s all-conquering Barcelona side that had the infamous Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar triumvirate in the league, while in the Champions League, Javier Hernández’s last-minute winner sent Real Madrid into the last four of the competition ahead of the Rojiblancos as Atlético would finish trophy less.

But from a personal standpoint, within the space of 18 months, Griezmann had progressed drastically. Never had he finished that high in the league, never had he gone to that stage of the Champions League and never had he produced that much output – 25 goals meant that his record of improving his final tally for the season each year kept on going and that would only continue. The capital was now perfect for him and those doubts about his integration into the team were a distant memory. For the national team, he was now a permanent fixture, and that meant things were perfect, and it was only a matter of time before he had more medals in his collection.

Big stages are where the biggest players step up. It’s where good becomes best and players see this as a stepping-stone to get to the next level of their careers. Despite the decent return in his first season, it was simply brandished as “transitionary” as he adapted to Diego Simeone’s methods. The next season, however, was undoubtedly his best as a professional and there are three key parts that Antoine Griezmann will look back on with a keen eye when he’s hanging up his boots. All three come in European competition, all three come in consecutive rounds and all three had various implications on a personal and professional scale.

The first comes against local rivals Barcelona in the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Having reached this stage in lethargic fashion, it was expected that this Barcelona side, who were having problems themselves, would previal, albeit with the difficulty that would naturally be expected of a Simeone side. The Blaugrana even took a 2-1 lead to the capital from the first leg, but that didn’t deter Atlético Madrid and it certainly didn’t deter their talisman, who was well up for the task.

In a boiling Vicente Calderón Stadium with 54,000 raucous fans, Griezmann struck twice to knock the defending champions out. The first was a thing of beauty, largely dependent on a delicious outside-foot cross from Saúl Ñíguez onto the powerful head of Griezmann. With the away goal tiebreaker working to their advantage, Simeone’s typically resolute defence was unbreakable, even for the finest attacking trident in football. Then, right at the end, Atleti won a penalty following a dangerous counter-attack, and that was sluggishly converted into the Barcelona net to send Atlético Madrid through to the last four.

The second big occasion came in the semi-finals against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, and this was much tighter than the previous round. This time, it was Simeone’s team that carried a 1-0 lead to Munich, but Xabi Alonso’s goal early in the Allianz Arena put things on level terms. And in the second half came Griezmann’s moment. Following some excellent link-up between him and Fernando Torres, he brushed off challenges from David Alaba and was set clear with a one-on-one with Manuel Neuer who he beat with all the confidence in the world.

They had the away goal, but Robert Lewandowski’s strike towards the end put some pressure on them. In the end, though, it was once again Simeone’s compact defending and his low defensive line that held out. They absorbed pressure and didn’t let it get the better of them, putting them in another Champions League Final. For Griezmann, this would have been far bigger than any other honour in his career and so far in the competition, composure stood by his side and brought him to a moment where he was within touching distance of history.

It all came down to the fashion capital of the world – Milan and the San Siro and amidst the glitterati; the most fashionable gift at the end of May was the trophy with the big ears. The bi-annual Madrid derby in the Champions League final showed the strength and consistency of the two teams, but that didn’t matter. The team sporting red-and-black wanted retribution, and it could be argued that they were better equipped now than they were two years ago. Simeone came with the same strategy that had carried them so far, Real Madrid, meanwhile, were sloppy throughout the season, but shone brightest when the stars came out on the weeknights.

As mentioned before, this was the third standout occasion for Griezmann, but why this night stood out is the opposite as compared to the previous two. Against Barcelona and Bayern Munich, he was on top of the world, but here in Milan against their local rivals, he was distraught. His penalty miss that would have levelled scores up didn’t matter because of Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco’s late equaliser, but could it have had more implications? Maybe if the ball had gone in the Rojiblancos may have had an extra confidence boost, maybe they wouldn’t have to go to spot kicks at the end of the two hours of football? It can’t be debated now, but surely, that miss was a game changer.

Players that were part of both sickening defeats would’ve been hurting more, but for a winner like Antoine Griezmann, not adding to his trophy haul after another fantastic campaign definitely stung. The loss in the final would later become a trend, as just about a month-and-a-half later, Griezmann suffered the sourness of defeat yet again in Saint Denis. The trend had many constants – excellent campaigns, lots of goals, lots of stand-out displays and a late blow that would deplete the soul.

But, putting the final to the side for a moment, if Griezmann’s value was rising during the season, in this one month, he was the name on everyone’s mouths. His goals were great. Typical of him that they were full of flair and in a nation that had suffered from a vicious terrorist attack in the capital, him and his team’s brilliance was putting smiles back on the faces of its inhabitants and Griezmann was at the centre of it all. The late winner against Albania and the double acts against Ireland in the Round of 16 and Germany in the semi-finals, with the virtuoso display of a goal and two assists against Iceland in the last eight sandwiched in between, Griezmann was running the show.

The final was heart breaking of course, and Griezmann’s incredible season didn’t deserve even one, let alone two of the same conclusions. But that didn’t put him down. At the peak of his powers, he carried on.

The last 18 months have been different. Antoine Griezmann has carried his good form for the most part, but for a player of his quality, the possibility of adding more trophies, earning more money and testing himself outside Spain has seen rumours rife. Since Euro 2016, he’s spurred Atlético Madrid to another European semi-final, losing once again to Real Madrid, and he’s added more goals to his game, becoming one of the deadliest in the sport at the moment. 2016, from a personal perspective, was great. Podium finishes at the Ballon d’Or and European Footballer of the Year have enhanced him, but maybe, the urge is to get more team success.

For a player of his calibre he has been forced to keep waiting and at the age of 27, this is surely the phase where most world-class footballers feel they can add to their résumé. Last summer, he was supposed to complete the transfer saga of the year with Manchester United calling, but to his credit, his loyalty saw him stay in Madrid due to the club’s on-going transfer ban and hold off a move for at least another year. This year, it seems impossible that he won’t go. Barcelona have been added to the mix and a move to the Nou Camp to play alongside Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé, Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi is certainly an exciting prospect.

But maybe, before the move and on the top of his priority list comes Coupe de Monde, the elusive, the greatest, the most prestigious of them all. In a team containing Paul Pogba and Kylian Mbappé amongst a whole host of unbelievable talent, Antoine Griezmann will be the talisman. He’s developing a career as a serial bridesmaid and if Les Bleus get to the final here and lose out, the pain would be incomparable to any other.

Antoine Greizmann is one of the most interesting characters and footballers of this generation. A player with world-class ability who has the record to back it up, he has shown fight. From the rejection due to his physical incompetence to personal success goals on big occasions to heartbreak in situations that are equally as massive, he has plenty of stories to tell. An icon for Atlético Madrid who will be carrying the hopes for the French tricolour in the summer, this could be the year that Griezmann kills the demons of yesteryear’s sins, or the one that only makes the wait go on even longer.

By Karan Tejwani with artwork by Matt Pascoe

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