Antoine Griezmann’s tears were bitter. He couldn’t conceive how and why Germany had defeated Les Bleus in the sweltering heat of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracana Stadium. Mats Hummels's simple 12th-minute header had knocked France out of the 2014 World Cup and Germany, once more, had been France’s nemesis. The lachrymose 23-year-old was beyond consolation, in spite of a hug from Rio Mavuba and a pat from his peer Eliaquim Mangala.
Today, Griezmann has become an international reference. “At the World Cup, he had already shown the extent of his talent,” said Philip Lahm, who was Germany’s captain in Brazil. “Then, he gained experience to become an established player. His progress is constant and he is one of the best European attackers. It’s not a coincidence that he scores as many goals for Les Bleus as for Atletico [Madrid].”
Against Germany, he seeks to elongate his steep career curve, honouring the tattoo on his arm that reads, “Fais de ta vie un rêve, et fais de ton rêve une réalité.” It is a line from the story The Little Prince by author Antoine De Saint-Exupery, who universally describes the wonder of life, and means, “Make your life a dream, and make your dream a reality.”
Overcoming physical deficiencies
At present that dream is winning Euro 2016. At the age of 13, Griezmann moved to Real Sociedad, a club hailing from San Sebastian, just across the French-Spanish border and 500 miles away from his home and family. His frail frame made his youth coaches doubt his aptness for the modern game, where a manic compulsion for big and bulky players permeates even the youth academies, notwithstanding the rise of Andres Iniesta and Xavi in the noughties.
Griezmann is not a bully who, with a menacing physical presence, puts pressure on opposing defenses and gets goals. He is subtle, using his game orientation and all-round athleticism to form the spearhead of his team’s forward line.
At Atletico Madrid, Griezmann stands out in an ensemble that thrives on rigour and resilience. Diego Simeone doesn’t coach his players, he drills them. On the eve of the Champions League final, Real Madrid held a relaxed practice session at the San Siro Stadium, with leeway for technical expression; Atletico, not so. They went through meticulous exercises under Simeone's supervision .
In the final, Griezmann smashed a penalty in regular time against the woodwork. Cristiano Ronaldo later sealed victory from the spot as well, with a mundane penalty and ensuing Chippendale celebration. Even though the final was a major disappointment, Griezmann’s Champions League campaign had been a success.
In the semi-finals, Manuel Neuer made Griezmann’s acquaintance. In a lightning-quick counter, the Frenchman latched on to Fernando Torres's delightfully weighted pass bisecting the space between David Alaba and Javi Martinez, and beat Neuer at his near post with a well-executed shot. The goal sufficed for Atletico Madrid to progress to the final, based on the away goals rule.
It’s that lethal temperament and clinical knack that Germany fears. At Sociedad, Griezmann made his mark and got a call up for the 2010 U-19 European Championship on home soil. He scored twice in a 5-0 rout of Austria in the group stage. France won the tournament, edging Spain 2-1 in the final.
Peaking at the right time
Today, he is the attacking fulcrum of the French team. He began Euro 2016 fatigued, though, after a season of 60-plus games. He covered 142 kilometres in the Champions League according to Uefa statistics. Gabi, his Atletico colleague, was the only player to outrun him with 149 kilometers.
When he arrived at the French training camp, Griezmann was submitted to a battery of tests and the physical coaches designed a personal training schedule, allowing the 25-year old to peak at the end stage of the tournament. Deschamps, concerned over the fitness of his poster boy, rested Griezmann against Albania, but with the game not going according to plan, the Atletico striker was brought on after the break and broke the deadlock with a fine header in the 90th minute.
Still, Dimitri Payet’s late strikes and Paul Pogba’s caprices have been front and centre of the French imagination in the tournament. Finally, against Iceland, Griezmann shone. Playing off Giroud in the ax of the field, he had a somewhat indifferent first half, but still contributed two assists and a wonderful little dink for France’s fourth goal. Up to the 87th minute, he sprinted deep into Icelandic territory to create an opportunity for Moussa Sissoko.
He got in between the lines, played on the front foot and, at times, wielded his blistering pace. He can tweak the rhythm of the game and exert decisive influence. For all those traits, the Germans will single him out in a semi-final that will be the tournament’s benchmark for both France and the Atletico player.