English football is full of tales of technically able, but physically lacking, youngsters who fall out of love with the beautiful game after one knockback too many. Yet, Blighty isn’t the only country afflicted by ‘too small-itis'. More than a decade ago, France nearly lost its crown jewel.
By 2005, rejection letters kept falling through Alain Griezmann’s letterbox. Auxerre, Saint-Etienne, Sochaux, even Lyon, the team his 13-year-old son Antoine supported, didn’t want to know. Lyon wasn’t even the one that really hurt, though. Metz reneged on their offer of a trial, again stating Griezmann was too small, without even seeing him play.
Eric Olhats saved everything one day in Paris. The Real Sociedad scout had just returned from a trip to Argentina and only went to a tournament hosted by PSG to see some industry friends at the Camp des Loges training ground. So enchanted was Olhats by the tiny kid wearing a Jamaica t-shirt instead of a Montpellier club tracksuit in one game, he gave the trialist his card and begged him to have his father call. The rest is history.
First in San Sebastian, now in the Spanish capital at Diego Simeone’s visceral Atletico Madrid, Griezmann has become a star of worldwide acclaim. Perhaps more than any other player, 2016 has been his year. Yes, he lost the Champions League and Euro 2016 finals (each to a team containing Cristiano Ronaldo), but he was probably the best player in both competitions. He was certainly voted so in his home tournament for France, scoring more goals at a Euros than any other player since Michel Platini in 1984.
This summer was an important one for the 23-year-old. Griezmann has lived in Spain since Olhats first took him to Real Sociedad. He celebrates goals he scores, even for France, in Spanish. He drinks the South American herbal tea maté ever since his Real Sociedad B coach Martin Lasarte introduced him to its restorative powers. France wondered if he was really that bothered. Six goals, player of the tournament and tears at losing to Portugal saw him settle any doubts.
A return of 32 goals in 54 appearances in all competitions for Atletico in 2015/16 was equally phenomenal. So is nine in his first 17 this season. When he first arrived at the Vicente Calderon in the summer of 2014 for €30m, Griezmann was nervous at the prospect of replacing the Chelsea-bound Diego Costa; now he’s the go-to player, the shyness definitively gone. The Hotline Bling celebration is testament to that.
Now playing regularly as a centre-forward, Griezmann has added clinical finishing to his game.
“He always knows how to hurt the opposition,” says Atleti boss Simeone. “He puts everything away.”
Premier League on the horizon?
If the rumour mill is to be believed, Chelsea are sniffing around. Manchester City, too. Now representing himself after bidding adieu to his agent a couple of months ago, Griezmann will likely stay at Atletico as long as Simeone does, which is believed to be the end of 2017/18, the club’s first at the new stadium.
For now, though, just enjoy the artistic brilliance of a slight, frail-looking attacker blessed with supreme confidence and ability honed by years of studying YouTube videos and his superiors in training. To be the best, Griezmann knew he had to work, to make up for the physique that nearly denied him a place at football’s top table.
On his forearm, he has the tattoo of a phrase from The Little Prince by eminent French author Antoine De Saint-Exupery. “Fais de ta vie un rêve, et fais de ton rêve une réalité,” it reads, meaning “make your life a dream, and make your dream a reality”
He’s certainly done that. And it all began in one 10-minute cameo in 2005, wearing a Jamaica t-shirt.
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FourFourTwo’s Best 100 Football Players in the World 2016
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