Skinny reject finally takes the stage

France's Antoine Griezmann celebrating after scoring a goal against Ireland. He scored both goals in the 2-1 last-16 victory.
France's Antoine Griezmann celebrating after scoring a goal against Ireland. He scored both goals in the 2-1 last-16 victory. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

PARIS • Over the past three weeks, Antoine Griezmann has obtained the status of French national treasure.

It was the 25-year-old's 89th-minute header that broke Albania's brave resistance in the group stage; it was his two strikes against Ireland in Lyon that delivered the hosts from the embarrassment of a round-of-16 exit in a tournament the country expects them to win.

France has yet to fully embrace Euro 2016, but it has been quick to take the Atletico Madrid forward to its heart.

For a long time, though, France - or at least French football - had no interest in the shy, skinny boy from the Saone-et-Loire.

He had always harboured ambitions of becoming a professional. As a child, he grew his hair long, an attempt to impersonate his hero, Pavel Nedved, the Juventus midfielder. He idolised Sonny Anderson, the Lyon striker, too.

His younger brother Theo later unearthed school exercise books that he had decorated with illustrations of him giving post-match interviews.

His mother Isabelle told the magazine So Foot that, for one school assignment, he wrote, with absolute certainty, that he would be a footballer.

It was not quite that easy though. Griezmann went for trials with a host of French teams, not just Montpellier. There was Lyon and their local rivals Saint-Etienne, as well as Sochaux and PSG.

His nearest team was Metz, a side with a fine record of producing young talent.

Robert Pires and Franck Ribery both cut their teeth at the Stade Saint-Symphorien. Metz looked at - and rejected - him twice.

The prognosis from all of them was that, while richly talented, he was simply too small.

"At the time, youth football in France was predicated on the physical," said Eric Olhats, the scout at Real Sociedad who discovered Griezmann.

"There was a lot of emphasis on the need to win games and competitions (immediately). That made it very hard for smaller kids to be taken on."

Griezmann, who now stands 1.75m tall and weighs 72kg, is not the only one of Didier Deschamps' players to have suffered from the problems French clubs have in spotting, nurturing and retaining young players.

N'Golo Kante was also told that he did not have the physique to make it. It was the same with his Leicester City team-mate, Riyad Mahrez, the Paris-born Algeria international.

Griezmann will feel that moving to San Sebastian, to join Sociedad, was beneficial.

"In Spain at the time, our youth programme was more regional," Olhats said.

"It was a better place to develop, not so focused on immediate success."

That played in the winger's favour. "He was very skinny," said Jesus Maria Zamora, a legend at Sociedad and a keen observer of their youth teams.

"He was talented. He reminded me of Xabi Alonso or Mikel Arteta, because it was so obvious how good he would be. But it was very complicated for him at the start."

Griezmann left Sociedad for Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2014 for £22 million (S$39.3 million).

Under the tutelage of Diego Simeone, he has grown into one of the most devastating forwards in Europe.

"Everyone at Real Sociedad is still very proud of him," Zamora added.

They should be. France may be reaping the benefits of all the club did for him, but the credit belongs over the border, in the Basque country.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 02, 2016, with the headline 'Skinny reject finally takes the stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe