Atletico Madrid and prolific goalscorers go hand in hand. One departs and another top player steps up to fill the boots left behind by his predecessor.
Fernando Torres made way for Diego Forlan back in 2007. Sergio Aguero soon took over as the club’s leading goalscorer, before Radamel Falcao stepped in following the Argentine’s sale to Manchester City. Falcao eventually joined Monaco in a €60 million deal, only to be replaced by Diego Costa. The controversial striker eventually left for the Premier League. All five of those players have been considered among the world’s best strikers at some stage during their career.
Unsurprisingly, Atletico Madrid’s luck in front of goal didn’t end there. The club opted to reinvest the bulk of the £32 million that they received for Costa on a promising young talent from Real Sociedad - Antoine Griezmann.
The emerging goalscorer had bagged 16 goals and four assists in 35 La Liga games and appeared to be a steal at just £24 million. However, while his talent was clear, few expected Griezmann to have quite such a big impact at the club.
Bought as a left winger, Atletico Madrid’s Diego Simeone has transformed his star player into a dazzling centre forward with the speed, control and vision to put any team to the sword. As a result, Griezmann was voted as the world’s third best player in 2016, behind only the unbeatable duo of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The talented forward has already achieved great things and looks destined to achieve plenty more before he hangs up his boots, but who is Antoine Griezmann and how did he become one of the world’s best football players?
Griezmann was born in Saône-et-Loire, France, to a French father and Portuguese mother. While his parents were a town councillor and hospital cleaner respectively, football is in Griezmann’s blood. His grandfather, Amaro Lopes, had played for Portuguese top flight side F.C. Pacos de Ferreira.
Lopes moved to France following his retirement to take up a career in construction and met Griezmann’s grandmother soon after. Despite passing away shortly after his grandchild’s birth, Griezmann’s mother insists that her son is ‘more Lopes than Griezmann’. On the pitch, that is certainly the case.
The youngster was passionate about football from a young age and was soon enough part of the local youth team, UF Macon. Despite displaying the quality to become a top footballer, his small stature put many clubs off. Griezmann went on trial with a number of top French clubs during his younger years, including Olympique Lyon, Auxerre, Saint-Etienne and Sochaux. However, he received the same response each time. Even Bundesliga side FC Metz had offered him a trial, only to cancel at the last minute due to his size.
For it while it appeared that Griezmann would join the unfortunate majority of young players that never get their break. However, a chance encounter with an off-duty scout would hand him his route into the professional game.
Eric Olhats, the first-team scout for Real Sociedad had just landed in Paris, stopping over in the city on his way back from a mission in South America. He decided to use his free time to visit a few friends who were attending a local youth tournament hosted by Paris Saint-Germain.
Despite playing for just 10 minutes, Griezmann left a lasting impression on Olhats. While French football at the time was very physical, the youngster’s technical superiority suited the style of Spanish football much better. The emergence of Lionel Messi certainly played a part - he had similarly been dismissed as ‘too small’, but had just recently broken into the Barcelona first-team.
Olhats approached the youngster at the end of the game, handing him a note with his phone number to give to his father. Despite some distrust, (which was to be expected, given how often the family had previously been messed around by scouts) Griezmann agreed to a one week trial with Real Sociedad. Before long, the teenage goalscorer had moved across the border to join the Spanish club’s youth ranks on a permanent basis.
“There were nights when I cried and it was hard to sleep,” Griezmann recalled. “At that age you don’t know what it means to leave home.”
Griezmann’s early days at the club were made tougher by the fact that he was one of few foreign players. The club had only recently relaxed their rules on the signing of non-Basque players and the French teen was certainly among the minority. It came as little surprise that it took him some time to settle into his new environment. He missed his mother’s cooking and would beg to stay whenever he returned home for the holidays.
While Olhats knew that Griezmann had the technical ability to succeed in football, he often wondered whether the youngster could cope with the mental side of the game. His shy personality made it difficult for him to make friends at the club and his limited understanding of Spanish made it that little bit tougher.
Yet, his doubters were underestimating just how much he loved the game. Like all of the greats, Griezmann’s desire to reach the top of the football ladder willed him on to push through the difficult times.
“Antoine was very shy off the pitch but on it he was daring, bold,” Real Sociedad captain Xabi Prieto recalled. “Bit by bit, he opened up and that shyness was a thing of the past pretty quickly.”
The Frenchman spent two seasons in the club’s youth ranks, before he was eventually promoted to the reverses in 2007. Griezmann was aged just 16 at the time. While far from the finished product, reserves manager Martin Lasarte had been impressed with his desire to learn and improve.
Luckily for the youngster, Lasarte would eventually take over as the first-team coach in 2009 and opted to take his star striker up the ranks with him. Griezmann made his club debut in the 2009/10 pre-season tour, in which he scored five goals in four games. Unsurprisingly, his spectacular performances earned him a place in the squad for the upcoming league campaign.
Incredibly, the 18-year-old could miss just three matches throughout the campaign, as Real Sociedad stormed to the Segunda Division title and regained their place in La Liga for the 2010/11 season. Playing as a left winger, Griezmann netted six times in 39 matches. While far from the level we now expect from the Frenchman, it was a solid start for a player with so little experience at the highest level.
Griezmann had the opportunity to return home to France that summer, with offers coming in from a number of Ligue 1 clubs. Likewise, Premier League sides Arsenal and Manchester United also expressed an interest. Yet, the youngster had long since gotten over his homesickness and was keen to stay at the club that had given him a chance when no others would.
Griezmann rewarded his employers the following season with another strong showing. Playing in La Liga for the first time in his career, Griezmann netted seven goals and three assists, which helped the club to avoid relegation by the skin of their teeth.
Year after year, the Frenchman stepped up his game. He contributed 11 goals in 2011/12, and 15 goals in 2012/13. With Griezmann on their side, Real had gone from a second tier side to a Champions League club, as his goal in their final game of the season secured their place in the prestigious competition.
However, his heroics in 2012/13 was surpassed by his brilliant final season at the club, as he netted 16 goals and provided four assists. Unsurprisingly, his rising tally grabbed the attention of La Liga champions Atletico Madrid, who agreed to pay the £24 million buyout clause in Griezmann’s contract.
While Real Sociedad had been pushing up the La Liga ladder, Griezmann initially found it difficult to cope in the Spanish capital. New manager Diego Simeone is well known for his intensive style of play and his training sessions are no different. Yet, just as he had during his younger years, Griezmann pushed on.
“I was struggling for air and my legs felt so heavy,” Griezmann recalled. “There was a tremendous intensity in training sessions and for the first half-season it was hard, but I worked hard.”
It took the Frenchman ten La Liga games to find the back of the net for Atletico, but after scoring twice in a 4-2 win over Cordoba CF, the floodgates opened. Griezmann went on to score an incredible haul of 25 goals throughout the 2014/15 season. Simeone used his new star across the park. However, a run of seven goals in four games confirmed that Griezmann was at his best playing up front.
Atletico were unable to retain the La Liga title, but Griezmann had helped to limit the damage caused by a number of big exits.
The talented goalscorer has gone from strength to strength at Atletico Madrid. The Spanish club were viewed as a ‘third wheel’ in La Liga, due to the dominance of Real Madrid and Barcelona. Yet, they proved otherwise in the 2015/16 season.
Simeone’s side navigated past both Barcelona and Bayern Munich on their way to the Champions League final. They pushed city rivals Real Madrid all the way to penalties, before suffering a cruel defeat. Yet, despite failing to clinch the trophy, Atletico Madrid have performed better than anybody had expected.
Griezmann netted 32 goals and provided seven assists throughout the season, before guiding France to the Euro 2016 final. He was rightly named the player of the tournament, having played a part in eight goals.
With a brilliant performance on the international stage, the Frenchman had cemented his place among the world’s best players. That title came with interest from some of the world’s biggest clubs. Discussions were had with Paris Saint-Germain and there was said to be interest from Real Madrid. Yet, the striker showed his thanks to his current club by putting pen to paper on a lucrative five year deal.
Griezmann was unable to improve on the previous season. Yet, he still netted 26 times throughout the 2016/17 campaign. His fantastic year saw him named as the world’s third best player, topped only by Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have dominated the Ballon d’Or award since 2008.
His desire to learn has taken him to the top of the football world. Yet, he is still looking for ways to improve his game. With his best years still ahead of his, Griezmann’s time will undoubtedly come.