Antoine Griezmann: From “too small” to France’s big hope?

Raf Diallo on the man who will join Paul Pogba in spearheading France's challenge at Euro 2016

Antoine Griezmann, France

Frances Antoine Griezmann, whose sister escaped from the concert hall where over 80 people lost their lives in the Paris attacks, listens to a rendition of the French national anthem before the international friendly soccer match between England and France at Wembley Stadium in London, Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. France is playing England at Wembley on Tuesday after the countries decided the match should go ahead despite the deadly attacks in Paris last Friday night which killed scores of people. (A

How many times have aspiring footballers been told they’re too small to make it … only to prove everyone wrong on the way to superstardom?

There are too many to count from all across Europe who either hit a growth spurt or proved that size doesn’t matter in football.

As France prepare to host Euro 2016, their key attacking outlet Antoine Griezmann is one such player.

A native of the heartland of France, the Atletico Madrid forward spent his early teens being told he was too small to make it as a pro, with Lyon and Montpellier among the sides to pass up on him.

But during an underage game against PSG whilst in the colours of Montpellier, scouts from the Spanish side of the Basque border - a region which also takes in South-West France - spotted him.

Thus at the age of just 14, Griezmann packed his bags and moved to the academy of one of Spain’s bigger clubs, Real Sociedad, in 2005.

It would prove to be a positively prophetic decision for the budding young talent.

Real Sociedad's Antoine Griezmann of France, left, smiles beside Olympique Lionnais's Alexandre Lacazette, before the match, during their Europa Champions League second leg, play-off soccer match, at Anoeta stadium in San Sebastian, northern Spain on Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Alvaro Barrientos)

After a number of years spent in the La Real youth ranks, by 2009 he was in the first team at a time when they were at a relatively low ebb down in the second division.

The Basque club would win promotion back to La Liga in 2009-10 with Griezmann as a prominent part of a strong self-produced core that would begin to assert themselves in the years to come, including Inigo Martinez and Asier Illarramendi.

That first season in the second tier saw Griezmann score six times in 40 matches across all competitions.

With his star rising, his small stature started to loom a little larger in his home country as the national youth squads drafted him, starting with the France under-19s in 2010.

Indeed, his time away had given him qualities that made him attractive to the French setup as his former under-19s coach Francis Smerecki commented at the time: "He's a type of player we did not have, a little bit Spanish because of his technique and accuracy in front of goal."

And significantly, he was being brought in as one of the older players from one of the strongest generations France has produced since the Generation of 1987 made up of Nasri-Menez-Benzema, all of whom will be absent from France’s first major tournament on home soil since 1998.

In 2010, Griezmann was part of a France under-19 panel including Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin and Lyon duo Alexandre Lacazette and Clement Grenier who won the European Championships. They are just slightly older than the under-20 crop of Paul Pogba, Lucas Digne and Geoffrey Kondogbia which enjoyed global glory at the FIFA Under-20 World Cup in 2013.

All the while, Griezmann was steadily making himself indispensable at Real Sociedad, making over 30 La Liga appearances in every single season he spent at the club.

But the true breakthrough for him came in the 2013-14 season when he scored 20 goals and added five assists in all competitions for a La Real side in the Champions League, leading to a transfer to a rising Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2014.

However, while club level was going swimmingly, he had found himself in a spot of bother with his home country.
Following a late night out whilst on France under-21 duty in the winter of 2012, he and a clutch of team-mates - including Sunderland’s Yann M’Vila - were given one-year suspensions from international football by the national federation.

Given scrutiny over behaviour in the wake of the player revolt at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, any transgressions were particularly sensitive.

But his club form meant it was impossible for France to ignore him once his international suspension expired in December 2013.

While his move to Atletico was still to come that summer, France coach Didier Deschamps called him up for a February 2014 friendly against the Netherlands - just two full months after his ban ended.

Significantly, it was mere months before the World Cup in Brazil and by the tournament had arrived, Griezmann had established himself as a key squad member thanks to two things.

One was his own goalscoring form and the other was a pre-tournament injury to winger Franck Ribery, which left a spot wide on the left open for Griezmann in the squad.

Unfortunate though it may have been for Ribery, it was perfect timing for Griezmann who played the full 90 minutes of France’s 3-0 win over Honduras and then featured in the subsequent group games against Switzerland and Ecuador.

A late substitute against Nigeria in the last-16, he would force France’s second goal via a deflection off Joseph Yobo to seal progression with a smile.

France’s World Cup ended in the quarter-finals against eventual champions Germany with Griezmann starting the 1-0 loss.

But the 25-year-old has spent the past two seasons turning himself into one of the biggest names in European football with Euro 2016 on the horizon.

As a flexible player capable of playing through the middle of the attack and on both flanks, he has plundered at least 25 goals in all competitions in both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons for Atletico and become one of the key men for his country, mainly in a wide-role off the centre-forward.

His one on-field blip in an otherwise exemplary season was the penalty miss against Real Madrid in the Champions League final in May, although he did then score in a losing effort in the shootout.

He was there against Germany at the Stade de France on November 13th 2015 when the Paris attacks took place - one bomber targeting the stadium - with his sister one of those who survived the brutal assault on the Bataclan Theatre on the other side of the city.

Naturally relieved when he discovered that she was okay, he tweeted: "Thank God my sister was able to get out of the Bataclan. All my thoughts are with the victims and their families":

 

 

France have played at the Stade de France since the horrific events of that night and they will be there again on June 10th when France kick-off Euro 2016 against Romania on the opening day.

Once regarded as too small, Griezmann will surely start the match as one of their big hopes especially with close friend Karim Benzema barred from taking part for off-field issues.

In his own words to L’Equipe, Griezmann says "You can say I need Benzema to protect me but we’ll see about that in 2016. There won’t be any more Antoine the protégé, only Antoine Griezmann."