At the end of the match Antoine Griezmann was handed a folded-up piece of paper and instructed not to open it until he got home.
He was 13 years old and although it felt like it was burning a hole in his hand, he did as he was told. When, eventually, he walked through the door at the end of a journey that felt like it would never end, he found a name and a phone number, which he dialled. Then he dialled his parents, Alain and Isabel, who were on holiday in Tunisia at the time. This was big, which is more than could be said for him.
“At first they thought it was a joke, but one call was enough,” Griezmann remembered. The man who had handed him the note was Eric Olhats, a scout for Real Sociedad in Spain, and things were different there. Everywhere he went, and he had been to plenty of places already, Antoine got the same answer: you’re too small. But Spanish criteria were not the same and Olhats had been impressed with Griezmann’s performance when on trial with Montpellier in a match in Paris and invited him to join La Real: for a week to begin with, then two, then for good. “I didn’t need to think twice,” Griezmann says.
The first stop was Olhat’s home in Bayonne, allowing him to continue going to school in France while training across the border in San Sebastián, but it was not long before he moved permanently. A kid born in Alsace with a Germanic surname and Portuguese roots, making his way in Spanish football at a club from the Basque country, his parents not keen at first. “There were nights when I cried and it was hard to sleep,” he admitted. “At that age you don’t realise what it means to leave home.”
Spain is home now, even if Griezmann plays for France. When he celebrated the equaliser against Ireland, he ran off shouting in Spanish. Although his finest, and funniest, celebration came when he led his La Real team-mates off the pitch and into the car that stood on the running track behind the goal, leaping in, beaming, beeping and waving as if they had won Family Fortunes, he marked one goal by kissing the Basque flag on his shirt and most often performs the archer gesture in honour of Fernando Torres’s homage of Kiko Narváez, Spaniards both.
But it is not just Spain that has shaped this Chicago Bulls-supporting, NBA nut whose sporting influences have come from all over. Griezmann was not even a starter for Real Sociedad’s B team when the coach Martín Lasarte called him up to the first-team squad for pre-season training. Warned that Griezmann was not near the finished article yet, Lasarte, a Uruguayan, had nonetheless seen something in him that recalled another young forward he had given a debut: Luis Suárez.
“It is hard to explain but I had no doubts,” Lasarte admitted. “The feeling was very similar to what I felt with Luis. They share something in how clearly they see things, how sure they are of where they’re heading and what they want. Luis wanted to get to Barcelona, Antoine to play for France. He was serious, focused, technically talented. He was also fun, mischievous, winding people up: he looks like an angel with those blue eyes but he’s the devil.”
Xabi Prieto is La Real’s veteran captain. “Antoine was very shy off the pitch but on it he was daring, bold. Bit by bit, he opened up and that shyness was a thing of the past pretty quickly,” he says. “The thing that stood out for me was his first touch which was always very clean and he had something: even if he disappeared the whole game he’d be there to get the winner.
“What he’s achieved doesn’t surprise me because he never accepted limits, he always wanted more. He used to ask the older players questions all the time, what he could improve, what advice they could give him.”
Griezmann learned from and embraced them all, Uruguayans particularly. Lasarte showed him games from back home, played on dreadful pitches in crumbing stadiums and he became so close to the striker Carlos Bueno that his former manager claims that because he became so good in the air he can barely tell them apart – even though Griezmann is just 5ft 8in. Just ask Ireland. Or Barcelona, in fact. “He copied the way of jumping and heading, protecting his space, from Bueno,” Lasarte says. “He improved so much that we started using him to defend corners too. When he heads, I see Bueno.”
The day Griezmann left for Atlético for ¤32m, following two superb seasons in San Sebastián, Bueno and Chory Castro spoke to Diego Godín and Cristian “Cebolla” Rodríguez; the Calderón welcoming committee would be Uruguayan too. Griezmann has become an honorary countryman, down to the accent and the flask of mate forever under his arm – that bitter “tea” beloved of Uruguayans and Argentinians.
Argentinians such as his manager Diego Simeone, with whom he has become a player so good that even when he renewed his contract recently and his buyout clause rose to ¤100m, it still did not seem impossible that someone might match it.
“I was struggling for air, and my legs felt so heavy,” Griezmann said of his first weeks in Madrid. The demands made were huge but never shirked, and the results have been spectacular. His defensive contribution, non-negotiable at Atlético, has been extraordinary but it is his attacking contribution that most stands out, where the evolution is clearest – his conversion to Simeone’s cause and into the striker that he did not know he was.
Prieto admits: “I see the same player now as I did then, but he’s improved and with us he played to the left.” Taken away from the wing and given a central role, his pace, first touch, and opportunism, allied to superb, varied finishing, have been decisive. When needed he has played wide, happily admitting that he will play “boring” football if it means winning, but put him in front of goal and he is crisp and clinical.
He watches videos and works on movement, becoming more direct. His confidence has grown, the faith in himself – something he also admitted had taken a hit when he was banned from the French set-up after a night out while in the Under-21s – and he has learnt to become more selfish, to quantify his contribution. There is something eloquent in this remark from Godín: “I tell him that if he scores he is helping too.” Twenty-five goals in his first season, despite not becoming a guaranteed starter until November, were followed by 32 last season. “He puts everything away,” Simeone said.
There was perhaps a lesson there for Didier Deschamps, which was underlined against Ireland, if it had not been already. The French newspaper Libération suggested that the decision to move Griezmann inside in the second half was the players’ suggestion, not the idea of the coach who had already left him out once in the group stage. “We spoke among ourselves: we had to sort it out, show that we’re France,” said Griezmann, who had already alerted him to the “imbalance” created by a role on the right.
The shift saved France, and at last thrust him centre stage, not just centre field. Properly their star for the first time, now at Atlético, a Champions League finalist, recognised as world class and performing superbly for them at his first major tournament as a starter, his first since that move to Madrid and a huge club.
Half his life has been spent in Spain, but Lasarte had said that he always knew what he wanted – and what he wanted was this. Aged 16, Griezmann asked Zinedine Zidane for his shorts when Real Madrid played at Anoeta, following his idol down the tunnel for the hand-over, Zizou heading off in just his pants. “A treasure,” Griezmann called them.
From Zidane’s shorts to his shirt, outselling all others in France where he leads Les Bleus at their Euros a decade later, he has become one of the best three players in the world, according to Simeone. If it sometimes seemed that France was a little slower to see that, if Deschamps did too, they might agree now as they face Iceland on Sunday. There may also be gratitude for what they have been given.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010