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Reinvention of Antoine Griezmann transforms France’s World Cup challenge

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France’s coach Didier Deschamps had thought for years that his little forward Antoine Griezmann would make a good defensive midfielder. “Grizi” loved coming back to help his defence, “sometimes even too much”, Deschamps once wryly commented.

A week before this World Cup, when the squad gathered in the football federation’s château at Clairefontaine, Deschamps put that thought into practice, telling Griezmann he would play in midfield in Qatar.

Heading into Wednesday’s semi-final against Morocco, Griezmann has achieved footballing reincarnation: the man of the match playing up front in the 2018 final is now possibly even better as a playmaker in midfield. Despite having no warm-up games ahead of this tournament to practise, Griezmann has nevertheless managed to top the tournament stats for passing creation and may now be more essential to France than forward Kylian Mbappé.

The man once rejected by the French system has ended up conquering it, thanks largely to Spain.

Griezmann was born in 1991 to a Portuguese-French mother in the Burgundian wine region of Mâcon. French football academies saw his talent, but at the time were in thrall to the cult of big lads, and rejecting shorties like Franck Ribéry and N’Golo Kanté, who went on to star in the German and English leagues respectively.

Spain, though, was already shifting to delicate tiki-taka passing football. Aged 14, Griezmann moved to Real Sociedad in San Sebastián just across the Pyrenees. He hasn’t lived in France since.

In 2014 he joined Atlético Madrid, a club whose Stakhanovite ideology matched his own. “Every training session was at the intensity of a match,” he said. The Spanish capital became home. “In daily life, I feel more Spanish than French,” he once told Le Parisien newspaper. “I eat at 3pm, I talk to my dog in Spanish.”

But he is fully cosmopolitan: after the 2018 World Cup final, he draped himself in the scarf of Uruguay, another country he adores (especially its Spanish accent).

World champion was a peak from which he soon tumbled. That same summer he unexpectedly pulled out of a move to Barcelona, revealing his decision in a tacky reality TV documentary.

A year later Barça did pay Atlético €120mn for him — a record fee for a footballer aged over 25. On arrival, Griezmann later admitted, Barcelona’s star Lionel Messi told him “that when I turned down the first chance to go, he was screwed because he had asked for it publicly”.

What started badly, ended badly. After two miserable years at Barcelona, Griezmann took a big pay cut to rejoin Atlético, who initially only used him for 30 minutes a match because more playing time would have triggered a bonus payment to Barça. Eventually he resolved the stand-off by accepting another pay cut.

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The situation at his club “was not ideal”, said Deschamps. France’s coaching staff also realised that the 31-year-old had lost the explosivity of a top-class forward. So he was converted.

Players like Messi or Mbappé pour all their energy into actions that target goals. Griezmann does that too. But, whereas most footballers are either sprinter types or marathon runners, he is both, involving himself in almost every second of the routine business of a match. His versatility as defender and playmaker means France can afford to field him as the creator in addition to three forwards.

“He takes as much pleasure from a tackle as from a pass,” said Deschamps. In Saturday’s quarter final, France had identified defender Harry Maguire as England’s worst passer, so they left him free to receive the ball, then sent Griezmann to press him. When Jude Bellingham or Phil Foden made forward runs, it was Griezmann who chased them.

Yet the moment the French had the ball, he unveiled his broad creative palette, from long passes to dribbles to through-balls to his winger’s cross on to Olivier Giroud’s head for France’s winner. He also laid on Aurélien Tchouaméni’s opening goal.

Griezmann’s statistics are extraordinary. Since 2017 he has played 72 consecutive games for France, or 28 more than Patrick Vieira’s previous record. He has a record 28 French assists, more than Zinedine Zidane. His expected goals — a stat measuring the quality of chances a player is involved in — is 0.63 per 90 minutes this tournament, the most of anybody who has played at least 225 minutes, according to data provider Opta.

Long a deliberately boring public speaker, Griezmann has begun to express himself. Paul Pogba, France’s verbal leader and dispenser of prematch pep talks in 2018, missed this tournament through injury and Griezmann is one of several senior players who has stepped up.

He has also continued to speak up for the LGBT+ cause (he supports Black Lives Matter, too). Asked by a journalist here whether it bothered him to play in Qatar where homosexuality is banned, he said, “Yes and no. Wherever I am in the world, they [LGBTQ+ people] know they will always have my support. But when my country calls me to play a competition, I come with pride.”

By Sunday he hopes to have given his country another World Cup and then — in the cosmopolitan spirit of modern football — to return home to his beloved Spain.

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