Inside the Stade de France at the finish line of Euro 2016, Antoine Griezmann confronted the ogre of defeat in a major final for the second time in six weeks. To lose a Champions League final with your club, then a European Championship with your country – both of which were knife-edge close encounters – in one summer is unusually cruel. Griezmann left the pitch in Paris after the defeat against Portugal and returned to the dressing room with his team-mates. “I was very sad but I did not cry,” he says. “I told myself, I must be determined and encourage the guys and comfort them. I wanted to show everyone my character, that I can be a leader of the team.”
In that action, rising high from the nadir, Griezmann proved that this compact forward possesses not only huge talent but also giant heart.
If considered wisdom puts Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi a level above anything else in the modern game, Griezmann is one of those who operate on the rung closest to them. “I want to eat at their table,” he says. “I want to get as close as possible to their level and win titles. My objective is to be among the best.”
With that in mind his desire has cranked up after a particularly intense period in his career. Griezmann admits it has taken time to recover from carrying so much mounting hope and expectation in the colours of Atlético Madrid and France during the climax to last season.
“There was a lot of emotion, a lot of tension, it can leave you very tired,” he says. “Two finals where we were so close to our target and close to getting the trophy. It just wasn’t the time. But I am not going to stop there. I will keep working to play in a final and win. In fact, I am more determined to win.”
He took time out to relax and refresh himself, enjoying a well-earned holiday over the summer. It felt like nourishment for the footballing soul. He returned to Mâcon, his home city in Burgundy, and spent time with his parents. He also took a vacation with old friends, his girlfriend Erika and young daughter Mia. Before long his natural verve began to bubble again
From day one of pre-season training with Atlético and having signed an extended contract during the close season, Griezmann has been raring to go. La Liga kicks off and Atléti host Alavés on Sunday evening. Griezmann expects his team to be heavily involved in the title chase again. In April, there was a three‑way sprint finish. Barcelona, Atlético and Real Madrid were separated by a mere point with five games to play.
At the time Diego Simeone’s dynamic side were also in the thick of the Champions League knockouts, slugging it out to see off Barça in the quarter-finals before delivering an unexpected uppercut to triumph against Bayern Munich in the semis. Griezmann – so bright and sharp with his darting counterattacking runs – scored decisive goals against both. In that same eventful month, he became a father for the first time.
Into May. One slip, as Atlético lost at Levante just after returning from Munich, was punishing as Barcelona pulled away in La Liga. Then came the Champions League final against their city rivals. The way Griezmann talks about the various experiences football has thrown at him recently, it is obvious the deepest sting came as Real Madrid beat them to another European crown. “The hardest one to take was the Champions League final,” he admits. “It was my first important final.”
Its impact was profound enough that the normally silly question as to whether he would rather win La Liga or the Champions League provokes a pointed answer. “Champions League. Without hesitation,” Griezmann replies. “Because I love it. I watch almost all the games when I can – quarter-finals, semi‑finals, final. It’s close to the heart of everyone here, the coach and the players. I watched it since I was small. I dreamed of playing in it. I always had a frisson when I heard the Champions League music. To play in that competition, to score a goal in it, is something special for me.”
Revisiting his childhood memories, one of the players he came across while watching avidly on television who made a big impact was David Beckham. “I liked him a lot. He was my idol. That’s why I wear a long-sleeved jersey and wear the No7.”
Griezmann has developed into one of Europe’s most impressive performers. His excellent goalscoring record, allied to an infectiously positive style, puts him in the mix among the most coveted attacking players. Along with Real’s Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, Griezmann makes up the three-man shortlist for Uefa’s award for best player in Europe. The result will be confirmed next week.
Griezmann’s efforts for France at Euro 2016, where he finished the competition’s top scorer with six goals, has enhanced a stature that was already on the rise with his consistently exciting forays with Atlético. It also speaks volumes about his mentality that just a few weeks after falling at the last with Les Bleus his focus on qualification for the World Cup in Russia is merged with club ambitions at the forefront of his mind.
The bid to improve drives him. He believes that staying at Atlético, certainly for the time being, gives him the best platform to do that. What makes him so happy there? “My team-mates, my coach, the outdoors life, my little family are very happy to be there,” he says.
“We live well. Personally, it is a club that can bring titles. I really have no desire to go to another club. I want to win titles with Atlético. It’s not a personal mission to win La Liga but I want it very badly. We have strong desire to win both La Liga and the Champions League and I am going to give my all to help my team to succeed. This season I hope we will be better more than ever.”
Part of his personal determination was formed by the challenge to make inroads in the professional game as a talented youngster who endured rejections on the basis of his size and slight frame. The opportunity came for him abroad, and he seized the chance given to him by Real Sociedad, leaving home in his youth. Like his good friend Paul Pogba, who also left France in his teens for an initial stint at Manchester United, he knows there is a different kind of growing up required, a different kind of resolve needed, to make it work in such circumstances.
“At the start it’s very, very hard, you shouldn’t go back to your parents, you just play football,” Griezmann says. “As I told my father, that’s how you learn how to be a professional. When I went to Spain it was for that – even if I had the blues from time to time, moments when I felt down. You have got to be really, really strong mentally.”
That is a quality he feels he and Pogba share. Griezmann was not surprised by the midfielder’s record move from Juventus back to Old Trafford this month. “He loves that league. Manchester is the perfect club for him. With Mourinho they are making something new,” Griezmann observes. “I think the supporters in England won’t be disappointed. They can expect the spectacular from Paul. He deserves it. He works hard and has the talent to be such an important player.
Might Griezmann one day be tempted by the Premier League? There certainly would not be a shortage of suitors if he came on the market. “Yes, why not? If I am out of contract with Atlético I would ask myself that question.”
For now, though, that question is obliterated by his commitment to Atlético. It feels like home to him, and to his family. His daughter is four months old and, naturally, fatherhood has lent perspective to this generally optimistic 25-year-old. Becoming a parent has made him “re-evaulate my life” and he does his best to spend time with Mia every day.
Even though he might have experienced a double disappointment last summer, Griezmann has so much to look forward to. He wants to seize every moment, in football and beyond, with all his small yet very substantial might.