Not a day went by this week when Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann wasn’t linked to a move elsewhere. First it was Real Madrid. Then Chelsea allegedly came knocking. A day later and Manchester United put forward their credentials, this at the same time that a whirlwind of rumours about Zlatan Ibrahimovic moving to Old Trafford appeared to be more than media-fuelled hot air.
Griezmann might be forgiven for being rather befuddled by it all. Then again, as the Bleacher Report told half the world earlier this week, his younger brother once found doodlings in the back of one of Antoine’s school textbooks that suggested he was being interviewed by Canal Plus, the French broadcaster. There were questions and answers that contained the nugget that, when all was said and done, Griezmann really just wanted to grow his hair long, like his hero Pavel Nedved, and play football professionally.
Before moving to Diego Simeone’s harsh regime at Atletico in 2014, Griezmann spent nine years at Real Sociedad in San Sebastian. He was brought to Basque country by a French scout called Eric Olhats more in hope than expectation. French coaching orthodoxy at the time stressed athleticism and size. It was widely believed that Griezmann had neither, although he was a player of obvious technical gifts.
He was turned down by any number of French clubs and Olhats followed his instincts and took a punt, parking him close to the French border in San Sabastian and watching to see whether France or Spain would win the prolonged wrestle with homesickness. “In Spain, I knew that we were more into letting time take its course,” Olhats told the Bleacher Report. “If I had worked for a club other than Real Sociedad, I don’t think they would have taken Griezmann on their books.”
Until 1989, Real Sociedad only recruited Basque footballers but that changed with the purchase of Liverpool’s John Aldridge. Sheffield Wednesday’s Dalian Atkinson followed Aldridge in the heart of the Basque country as the club realised that there was no future in trying to do a reasonable approximation of Yorkshire CC and their Yorkshireman-only recruitment policy. The wider world had to be embraced.
Having won La Liga in consecutive seasons in the early 1980s, there might reasonably have been a feeling that Real Sociedad were falling behind to the traditional juggernauts of Madrid and Barcelona. No longer could they be a narrowly nationalistic club. They were out on a geographical limb anyway (facing the cold seas of the Atlantic, across the Bay of Biscay) and it was better not to confine themselves to Basque player stocks. Thirty years ago and Griezmann wouldn’t even have been considered a transfer option.
San Sebastian is a small, beautiful city, tucked around a bay and protected by an offshore island. They speak both Spanish and Euskara there, drink cider and eat plenty of seafood with lashings of cream. What remains of Guernica — where German Stukas dive-bombed Basque civilians at the start of the Spanish Civil War — stands proud but forlorn down the coast. This is a parochial, old and settled country, a good place in which to grow up, learn a trade and concentrate on becoming bigger and better.
Such is the Basque country’s sense of difference that not only football gets played up in the hills behind the city. Tug-of-war (called sokatira in Euskara) is probably the premier folk sport, but Basques are also fond of stone, anvil and bale lifting, cob gathering, churn carrying and — most fabulously of all — espadrille tossing.
Despite playing football in San Sabastian, Griezmann lived with Olhats in Bayonne, across the border in France. His progress was unremarkable. Many, including his dad, Alain, doubted he would make it professionally. Olhats insisted that Griezmann junior should concentrate on his studies. He needed a safety net should something go wrong.
But the young man hung in there. He started to reveal a tendency for scoring important goals, equalising in a 2-2 draw with Barcelona in the 2011-2012 season and seeing to it that Real Sociedad finished high enough up the La Liga table to qualify for the Champions League the following season. His goal against Deportivo La Coruna not only condemned Deportivo to relegation but also ensured European football for Real Socieded for the first time in nine years.
As luck would have it, they drew with Lyon in the Champion’s League qualifying rounds, Lyon being the airport from which Griezmann has flown to San Sebastien as a 14-year-old. In a manner of speaking he had come full circle.
There will be even more interest next month when Griezmann partners Paul Pogba upfront for France in the European Championships. Pundits are already licking their lips, predicting a possible victory for France on home soil. Not bad for a boy who was once widely told that he wasn’t good enough.