Antoine Griezmann: The sweet taste of San Sebastián

If you travel to San Sebastián, the picturesque city situated at the most Northern part of the Basque Country, you’re likely to stumble across a smattering of French inspired architectural pieces; The arcades of Buen Pastor square, the Ensanche Cortazar and the Maria Cristina Bridge. To all these magnificent sights which adorn the city there is a recent addition to compliment them in the form of a charismatic, precocious young figure – Antoine Griezmann.

Having been born in Mâcon, central France, Griezmann knows a thing or two about being in picturesque surroundings; but it was the small city located in Southern Burgundy that the winger left at the age of 13 after being rejected by teams in his homeland. The story goes that Griezmann tried out at Lyon, Sochaux, Metz, Auxerre and Saint-Étienne, with all the clubs incredibly citing he was ‘too small’ and ‘physically incapable of the demands required at a higher level’ – ever more startling given that small guys really do rule the football world at the moment. Not be deterred, he managed to come to an arrangement with Montpellier to play for their youth side, and it was in a junior tournament held in Paris he first attracted admiring glances which still linger to this day. While playing against Paris Saint-Germain’s equivalent youth side, he was spotted by Eric Olhats, at the time Chief Scout for Real Sociedad, and his first reaction upon seeing the energetic teenager was described as being somewhat “open-mouthed”. Olhats immediately called Roberto Olabe – Sociedad’s Sporting Director – to put a deal together for a player he’d witnessed that afternoon who had left him amazed. “He was so small! At 5’8 he wasn’t lacking in height too much for his age, but physically Antoine was light. He was electrifying though, that was the main thing I thought, and if he could grow…we could have a real marvel on our hands”.

Similar to the incident between Florentino Perez and Zinedene Zidane (Perez famously wrote on a napkin in English asking Zidane “Do you want to play in Madrid?”), Olhats left a note in Griezmann’s pocket and told the feather-light teenager not to open it until he got home. Upon bursting through the door, Griezmann recalls: “I rang up my parents who were in Tunis at the time, and told them I’d been offered a deal with Real Sociedad…that they wanted me to travel to Zubieta for a trial”. The sticking point to any deal however was his parents, Olhats acknowledged this and soon afterwards he spoke directly to them in hope his reassurances would be accepted. “I put them in a car, and said to them we wanted to take him – but not without their word, he wouldn’t go anywhere.” His parents won over, a 14 year old Griezmann moved on.

The deal rattled out by the Basque club was initially a one week trial, in which he scored on his first appearance via a tournament held in Bilbao – that trial turned into a fortnight before being offered a deal consisting of full youth terms. Bear in mind still 14, the decision to move abroad was a huge one to make, being at the beginning of his teens to learn a new language, lifestyle and style of football it was never going to be easy. “He cried, maybe 3 times, packed his case and just wanted to go back home to his parents” Olhats continues, with whom during his trial and youth period Griezmann resided with. The player, on the request of his parents, focused on his studies during the day attending a school in Bayonne, before being driven personally each day across the border by his mentor Olhats for training on an evening. The integration was slow, but over the course of 4 years he gradually went through every level of youth football at the club, sticking by a strict diet imposed by the club and a gruelling fitness regime intended to develop his body. While training at youth level he was coached by Meho Kodro, a former striker and now legend at the club, the Bosnian claimed that “Griezmann has a mind on the field like that of no other I’ve seen”. Mighty praise indeed and things started to move at an alarming rate when Sociedad’s attacking midfielder Bingen Erdozia was sidelined through injury at the beginning of the 2009/2010 pre-season campaign – Kodro stepped up and recommended to new coach Michel Lasarte he had a solution to fill the vacant position. In 5 pre-season games he scored 4 goals, attracting attention from fans that until now had little knowledge of a player who had been kept under wraps for four years.

On September 2nd 2009, Griezmann made his debut in the Copa del Rey against Valladolid as a 75th minute substitute, then 4 days later made his first professional league appearance again as a substitute before on the 27th of September making a full debut – it was this game against Huesca that those who flock to Anoeta were to really take notice as Griezmann produced a splendid driven finish from outside of the area for his first ever goal. They were soon to flow, and he went on to score a further five goals over the course of the season including a neat outside of the boot finish against Cadiz – with accompanying dive in the snow celebration – and a sweet close range volley against Numancia. The goals weren’t the whole story; he weighed in with a fair share of assists for the likes of Carlos Bueno, Xabi Prieto, and Imanol Agirretxe all of which contributed to Real Sociedad’s promotion to the Primera Division.

Martin Lasarte opted to select his prodigy on the left hand side of a three-man attacking midfield behind a lone striker, and over the course of the season Griezmann duly repaid the faith shown in him by not only providing assists and goals but also working the position to the fullest extent. In the latter half of the season he began to show a more mature attitude to the tactical side of the system, tracking back on his flank and in turn neither neglecting his defensive duties nor putting himself before the team. His further understanding of the system was shown as he was used as a striker playing on the shoulder, not only causing problems himself with direct running but also showing some nous off the ball with smart runs to create space for the likes of Prieto.

On the 8th of April 2010 any lingering doubts about his status were banished with the signing of a first professional deal, a 5 year contract with a €30 million release clause inserted into was duly signed and sealed; the clubs that had frequented the Anoeta during 2009 were presented with a stumbling block in tempting the player away.

The rewards were coming thick and fast, and the success at club level proceeded with inevitable recognition at International level. That was only to come after a fierce battle between the respective Spanish and French FA’s for the rights to field Griezmann, in the end the winger chose his nation of birth and after going through various youth levels he made the step up to a much higher level. The 2010 UEFA European Under-19 Football Championship was the stage set, and alongside fellow burgeoning talents Gael Kakuta (Chelsea) and Alexandre Lacazette (Lyon) helped his country to the trophy with a win in the final over ironically enough, the country which provided his footballing education – Spain. The two goals and accompanying assist against Austria in the competition, a glimpse of just why Les Bleus were so persistent in their efforts for him to adorn their colours.

In August of 2010 the Spanish Primera Division season got underway, and after starting in the first game of the season gushed in the post-game interview he had “fulfilled a childhood dream”. If that was a dream fulfilled, then it was to be one which would reoccur over the next few months of the year. Only a few weeks later he got his first goal, with a leaping header against Deportivo La Coruña; it was the subsequent celebration which got most of the attention though, as he made his way to a sponsor’s car parked beside the pitch and got in the driver’s seat as his team mates hopped on board. The following week he scored again in a victory over Málaga, latching onto a Joseba Llorente pass and bursting past two defenders to slot home with a cool finish.

Such a blistering start to life in the top league was to reap further rewards at International level, and despite being eligible for the under-20 squad that was bypassed due to Coach Erick Mombaerts calling him up for his own under-21 squad.

The progression at the highest level of Spanish football was to continue, including a performance against Real Madrid which epitomized the fearless streak that runs through his veins. Up against Sergio Ramos, arguably one of the top full backs in the world, he didn’t once stutter his lines and was a constant threat throughout as Sociedad narrowly lost on the evening. The most notable improvement in his game has been delivery from wide areas, in football today we are overawed with a number of exciting young wingers, but unlucky at the same time to have so many who can’t master the basic skill of crossing a ball – be it dead or moving.

Griezmann saw 2010 out with his team prospering in their first season after promotion, and many of Spain’s most respected journalists were declaring he was one of the standout performers as the campaign reached its halfway stage. In an interview recently he stated that the year had been a dream, citing playing against the world’s best players week-in week-out and also being part of a promising side himself.

When asked what he was looking forward to most over the Winter break the 19-year old smiled and replied; “Sweets, I like them! But I have to be careful because otherwise the club doctor will be angry with me”.

Clearly, still just a kid in a candy store called La Liga.

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