In the battle of the No. 7s, round one went to Cristiano Ronaldo in the Champions League final. Is today payback time for Antoine Griezmann?

Antoine Griezmann: From academy reject to host nation's hero

France forward Antoine Griezmann celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal in the 5-2 victory over Iceland in the Euro 2016 quarter-final.
France forward Antoine Griezmann celebrates after scoring his side's fourth goal in the 5-2 victory over Iceland in the Euro 2016 quarter-final.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Every saga needs a hero, and that role for France at the European Championship has fallen to a slight, unassuming forward with boyish looks - Antoine Griezmann.

After Michel Platini, who fired Les Bleus to the 1984 European title, and Zinedine Zidane, who inspired them to their 1998 World Cup triumph, France needed a new leading figure in their campaign for more glory on home soil.

Whatever happens in tonight's final against Portugal, the speedy Griezmann, who scored both goals in Thursday's 2-0 semi-final win over Germany, has probably done enough to top the scorers' table and is a worthy candidate for the best player of the tournament award.

The 25-year-old, who stands 1.76m tall, caught the eye on the big stage against Germany, first driving home a penalty before poking in the ball following a blunder by Germany goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.

"He is our little man that gives us that little bit extra," said fellow striker Olivier Giroud, summing up what Griezmann does best: Playing with the energy and enthusiasm of a little boy in a school match.

Griezmann, who left for Spain as a teenager after being turned down by French academies because he was regarded as not being big enough, matured to become one of the world's most lethal strikers.

Said right-back Bacary Sagna: "Antoine, to me, is right up there too, in the same league as (Cristiano) Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.

"It's a kind of revenge for him after the French academies wouldn't take him. He made it the hard way."

Griezmann, whose Portuguese maternal grandfather played football for Pacos de Ferreira, a small town outside Porto, was remembered for his tears after France lost 1-0 to Germany in the 2014 World Cup quarter-final in Brazil.

He had another traumatic experience the last time he faced Germany in November, on the night of Paris attacks that killed 130 people.

The young forward found out that his sister Maud was at the rock concert at the Bataclan hall, where 90 people were shot dead, and he had to wait several hours before knowing she had escaped unhurt.

All those images must have been on his mind against Germany but his feelings after the final whistle were all about pride and joy.

"It was our duty to win matches to give the French joy," he said. "I hope we will make it a beautiful end."

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'Antoine Griezmann: From academy reject to host nation's hero'. Print Edition | Subscribe