FIFA World Cup: Griezmann, France's man friday

Rejected by French clubs for being too small, the midfielder is leading France in the World Cup
Antoine Griezmann (Right): Rejected once, smiling and content now.
Antoine Griezmann (Right): Rejected once, smiling and content now.

CHENNAI: BAYONNE is a city in Southwestern France. When Antoine Griezmann was a child, he used to study there. After school, he would get on a vehicle, travel west to San Sebastian, a resort town in Spain (Griezmann was a youth product at Real Sociedad). It's not like he had willingly decided on this routine to be in two countries every other day. As a kid, he had applied to a lot of famous teams in France. All sides, including Lyon, his boyhood club, rejected Griezmann. The clubs were of the opinion that he was too slight.

While playing a trial game for Montpellier, he caught the attention of Eric Olhats, a scout for La Real. Even as all French clubs turned their noses up at Griezmann for a perceived lack of physicality, Olhats saw something else. His technical ability. There was a meeting between Olhats and the Griezmanns. The kid decided to shift to a border town — Bayonne — to keep his dream alive of becoming a professional footballer. For four years till he completed his schooling, Griezmann studied in France in the morning before training in Spain in the afternoon. "I was his father, his mother, his grandmother and his coach,” Olhats had once told while reflecting on their relationship.

After signing a first professional contract with Sociedad, he helped them win promotion to La Liga. He hit the ground running in Spain's top-tier and it wasn't long before France started paying attention to this kid. After considering the situation (he qualified to play for Portugal too), he declared for the country of his birth.

Eight years on from his debut for Les Bleus, he's perhaps one of the most important players for France. Kylian Mbappe may be the Rolls Royce of this side but Griezmann is the fuel that allows the Rolls Royce to do its thing. He's so important for manager Didier Deschamps that he has never considered leaving him out for the better part of the last six years. Mbappe has come in, Olivier Giroud has gone in and out, Karim Benzema has been reintegrated into the squad while the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Kingsley Coman and Dimitri Payet are or were important reference points in attack.

Griezmann has seen all of them come and go while maintaining a spot in the line-up. That
quarterfinal against England a few nights ago saw him make a 72nd consecutive appearance for France. It's a record that's unlikely to be matched any time soon. That match also showed why a) Griezmann is very important to this Deschamps setup, and b) his in-game intelligence.

When he first came into the national side during his La Real days, Deschamps had the tendency to field him as a second striker, either with Benzema or Olivier Giroud. At other times, Deschamps also deployed him as a wide forward on the left or up front. As a second striker behind Giroud, Griezmann won the Golden Boot at the 2016 Euros with six goals. The emergence of Mbappe meant he played a slightly different role in 2018 but that did not stop him from influencing the way France attacked. Along with Harry Kane, he topped the chart for most goals and assists with six (four goals and two). He starred in that final with a goal, an assist and a pre-assist.

Now, his role is not to get into goal-scoring positions. Not in this team that's devoid of Paul Pogba anyway. Instead, it is to link the scratch midfield pair of Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot with Mbappe and Giroud. So, Griezmann's remit, in Qatar, was to be an advanced playmaker. To be an 8. He did just that by teeing up Tchouameni for his opening goal and crossing from the left for Giroud's winner in the England game.

It's that in-game intelligence that allowed him to pick-up those positions. It's not something that he has picked up overnight, though. Those two assists meant he had gone past both Zinedine Zidane as well as Thierry Henry to become Les Bleus's all-time leading assister with 28 (Henry and Zidane had 26 each).

A few days before the England game, he explained about his new role to reporters. "I am pretty free in how I link up with defence and attack,” he had said. “When we are defending, I have to help out my team-mates. When we have the ball, I have to try to play it as well as I can. It gives me more choice. Physically, I feel great, and when I am feeling good my head is a lot better too. It is easier to keep doing it over and over again.”

His performances at the World Cup is all the more remarkable when you consider the way his club career has gone since his move to Barcelona from Atletico. The Catalans made him one of the most expensive signings of all time in 2019 but little has gone right for him at the club. When he joined Barcelona, it was already in a state of decay. He was loaned back to Atletico last year as Barcelona woke up to the full extent of their financial difficulties. With Atletico struggling to rediscover their mojo, this second innings has not been a pleasurable experience for the Frenchman.

For France, it's been a different story. He's now three hours away from winning back-to-back World Cups. If you had told that to a 13-year-old kid who was being rejected for being too small in the early 2000s, he would have laughed it off. At 31, though, he's smiling. Content. Being in his happy place. In a Les Bleus jersey.

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