The puny kid France now pins its hopes on

Born in Burgundy, Antoine Griezmann left his home country to try and make his career in Spain at just 13, and is now returning, having shot to world prominence as the attacking star of Atletico Madrid’s Champions League campaign.

Antoine Griezmann has not had an easy route to France's senior team but his emergence as a real star is a timely boost for Les Bleus.

This rise is particularly well timed given Real Madrid hitman Karim Benzema misses the European Championships, where he had planned to lead France’s attack, due to a bizarre sex-related scandal.

Over a decade ago, when Benzema was coming through at Lyon, few would have predicted that Griezmann would be carrying many of his country’s hopes this month.

Obsessed with becoming a professional player, he was turned down as a kid by many French clubs, among them Lyon, Auxerre, Saint-Etienne, Metz and Sochaux.

They all thought he was too puny to make it.

Luckily for the current Les Bleus set-up, Real Sociedad scout Eric Olhats spotted the potential in the frail youngster at a tournament organised by Paris Saint Germain, and persuaded Griezmann to move to the La Liga club.

“I knew the youth-scouting criteria at that time, in France at least, were mainly related to athletic and physical abilities,” Olhats told Bleacher Report recently. “And Antoine didn’t fit into that at all. If I had worked for a club other than Real Sociedad, I don’t think they would have taken Griezmann on their books.”

The skinny kid’s talent was fostered in San Sebastian, and he quickly progressed to the senior La Real side scoring on his full debut as an 18-year-old early in the 2009/10 season.

France now took notice — calling up Griezmann for the European U19 Championship the following summer.

He then starred in a team that also included Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette, as the trophy was won on home soil — with his adopted country, Spain, beaten 2-1 in the final.

When fellow-Frenchman Philippe Montanier was appointed Real Sociedad coach in summer 2011, Griezmann became a key member of the txuri-urdin team.

He scored 17 goals (in all competitions) over the next two seasons, and often rose to the big occasion.

He found the net against Barcelona and Real Madrid, while developing a popular knack of scoring in Basque derbies against Athletic Bilbao.

Around now his international career was derailed for a time — after an ill-judged night-time escapade when on France U20 duty led to him and three team-mates being banned from representing their country for 14 months.

La Real finished fourth in the Primera Division in 2012/13, sending Montanier’s side into the qualifying-round of the following season’s Champions League, and bringing Griezmann back to France again to face Lyon.

Returning to the club he had supported as a boy, but who had decided against employing him, he scored a flying bicycle kick to crown an outstanding individual performance and a 4-0 aggregate win for his side.

A year later, now 23, Griezmann was ready to move on from San Sebastian.

Although there were rumours of interest from richer clubs, including Arsenal and Paris Saint Germain, he made a €30m move, in summer 2014, to Atletico Madrid.

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gain things did not go perfectly at first. Griezmann was the not the first player to suffer under the demanding regime of Atletico coach Diego Simeone, and especially physical preparation specialist Oscar ‘El Profe’ Ortega.

Simeone appeared to doubt his stamina and work-rate, and his first 22 games for his new club brought just five goals.

A return to the Basque Country, and a hat-trick at his old team’s rivals Athletic Bilbao, marked a turning point in December 2014.

“Griezmann is a player we need, that we went looking to get,” Simeone said that night at San Mames. “We’re very happy for him, as we need a player like him. This will be good for his confidence. It shows his hard work is paying off. He gives us something different.”

From there Griezmann barely looked back, finishing the season with 22 La Liga goals, and 25 in all competitions.

Simeone was happy with this goal return, but also expected his top scorer to work just as hard off the ball as everyone else.

“It was about adapting to a new team, new systems of work,” Griezmann told El Mundo later in 2015.

“I was coming from Real Sociedad where I was an important player, and here I was just one more. It was tough to adapt to that, and to show that I could be important here too. There is a lot of intensity in every training session, but that makes you a better player.”

Griezmann continued his goalscoring into the 2015/16 campaign.

But unlike during his time at Real Sociedad, he was struggling to score for Atletico in the biggest games.

Fulfilling the defensive duties imposed by Simeone, and also getting into the box to score, seemed too much work for his slight frame. His first 15 games against either Madrid or Barca brought just one goal. This issue was highlighted when he missed a penalty against Madrid in last October’s 1-1 La Liga draw at the Calderon.

“I’m still not at my best level,” Griezmann said last January. “I work hard every day, every week, trying to reach a higher level, to show my best version. It’s true I’m still far off the top players.”

The run ended though with a superbly taken winner against their neighbours at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in February. That was quickly followed by two goals against Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-final, and one in each of the semi-final legs against Bayern Munich. The glut of goals did not stop him contributing fully — and Griezmann was often back in midfield or defence helping out. Without him, Atletico would not have reached the final against Madrid.

The 2015/16 La Liga campaign ended with 34 goals in all competitions and with Simeone putting his number seven up alongside the world’s best players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

“Griezmann has worked very hard, pushed himself, and knows how to listen,” the Argentine said before the Champions League final. “The best way to improve in any job is to listen. Without doubt he’s now one of the best three players in the world.”

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riezmann also did not find it easy to break through with France’s senior team.

With his indiscretion at underage level not helping matters, his full international debut had to wait until a friendly ahead of the 2014 World Cup. In Brazil he played four games, without scoring, with Benzema clearly still top dog in the France attack.

His emergence now as a real star has been usefully-timed for France, with Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps bowing to political pressure and leaving out Benzema due to his role in an alleged sex-tape blackmail of his international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.

A lack of competitive qualifiers over the last two years makes it hard to judge accurately, but Griezmann has been accumulating international experience in friendlies against bigger countries, and goes into Euro 2016 with seven goals in 26 senior caps.

Deschamps is now expected to field Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud as a focal point in attack, with Griezmann and Man Utd’s Anthony Martial on either side in a 4-3-3 shape. The latter two, along with Juventus’ Paul Pogba and PSG’s Blaise Matuidi, form part of a new generation not tainted by previous tournament failures and splits in the Les Bleus camp.

Should Griezmann really catch form for France at the Euros, he is likely to remain in the headlines all summer.

Atletico are keen to tie their latest superstar attacker down to a new long-term contract. But big names tend to leave the Calderon in the end, and suitors around Europe including Man United. Chelsea and Bayern Munich.

First though come the finals back on home soil. Asked by Uefa for his best memory of the tournament, he chose the Euro 2000 decider when David Trezeguet scored the golden goal winner for France — at a time when Griezmann was just nine and still playing for his local club in the small central town of Macon.

“For me, it’s Trezeguet, and the moment when he scored the golden goal and took off his shirt,” he said. “It was a really good moment. I remember I was at home with my family and my friends, and we were all screaming with joy.”

Recreating such a moment this summer would be extra special for a skinny little kid who has had to struggle all the way along, but whose country is now looking to him for something extra special this summer.


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