Spurned by Lyon, where Griezmann's Atletico face Marseille in Wednesday's final, because of his slender build, the Frenchman could be set for a €100 million move to Barcelona this summer
Europa League final: Antoine Griezmann, the pony rejected by French clubs who turned into a thoroughbred colt at Atletico Madrid
You can reach Lyon from the town of Macon quickly, in half an hour heading south on the A6 when the traffic is light. It was a journey the young Antoine Griezmann would make regularly as a schoolboy, a trip to stimulate his ambitions of becoming a professional footballer.
Lyon were entering the best phase of their history when Griezmann, born and raised in Macon, was allying his passion for the sport with dedication to playing it. He would watch Lyon’s Brazilians Juninho Pernambucano and Sonny Anderson as "OL" set about a run of seven successive Ligue 1 titles, after the turn of the millennium, and he would ask them for autographs. He liked OL, effectively his local club in the top division of French football, and soon learned they had a fine reputation for cultivating young talent.
Not a perfect record, though, as the governors of OL expect to be reminded on Wednesday evening. Griezmann, the local lad, will be back in his neighbourhood for the Europa League final against Marseille, to be staged at the splendid new stadium, the Parc OL, that Lyon’s successes in the early 21st century, and their lucrative sales of players helped to build. And they will wonder, as Griezmann spearheads Atletico Madrid in the club’s third major European final in five years, how the maestro from Macon, valued at €200 million (Dh880m), was never one of theirs.
Griezmann had trials at OL when he was a short, slender boy. They, like several French clubs, seemed to reject Griezmann’s prospects on account of his small frame. So it was that he more or less emigrated to Spain, as 14 year old who overcame acute homesickness – “there was sadness behind the smile”, he says of the time – to accept the interest of Real Sociedad and from there build a career in La Liga that would bring him to the wider notice of his native France and put him on the Ballon d’Or podium alongside Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
By September, Griezmann may be playing his club football alongside Messi. His four years at Atletico Madrid, who signed him from Real Sociedad for around €30m and developed a winger with a centre-forward’s instincts into a prolific goalscorer, have reached a crossroads. A condition of Griezmann resisting overtures from a range of clubs last year was that his release clause lowers this July from €200m to half that. It is Barcelona, very willing to spend more than €100m on the 27 year old, who have pressed their case hardest to the player.
As the Lyon region anticipates his brief homecoming, Atletico supporters suspect an imminent farewell to their blonde superstar. But they are accustomed to these good-byes. In the period since Atletico re-established themselves among the European elite, a parade of world-class strikers have moved on, from Fernando Torres joining Liverpool, to Sergio Aguero joining Manchester City, through Radamel Falcao to Monaco, and Diego Costa to Chelsea.
Standards barely seem to slip. Aguero inspired a Europa League triumph in 2010, and, without him, Falcao then spearheaded another in 2012. A league title and a Uefa Champions League final silver medal were won after Falcao had been sold in 2013 and, post-Costa, the Champions League final was reached in Milan in 2016.
Griezmann has a bitter-sweet memory of that night. He failed to convert a penalty that might have prevented extra time and a shoot-out Real Madrid went on to win. Less than two months later, he lost another major final, for France, in Paris, at Euro 2016.
If he leaves Atletico, it will be in pursuit of prizes, the sort of tangible recognition Griezmann struggled as a teenager to find in his native country. If he leaves Atletico, it will be with gratitude. He has established himself in a Diego Simeone team mostly engineered around forceful counter-attack, as a supremely accomplished finisher but also as a provider of goals, with his shrewd runs and intuition.
He may also have found, belatedly, his best partner. Since Costa returned to Atletico from Chelsea in January, Griezmann has flourished, shaking off some ordinary early-season form. In this marriage, Costa is the power, Griezmann the polish. And there is Torres, another Atletico returnee preparing for his second farewell to the club, in reserve.
Simeone tires of the daily speculations on a Griezmann future that appears to be away from Madrid. “I put on blinkers, like a racehorse, and think of the next game,” said the Atletico manager, obliquely referencing Griezmann’s interest in horse-racing. He is the owner of a thoroughbred, Tornibush, that has recently enjoyed some success on France’s racecourses, notably in Marseille.
Tens of thousands of Marseillaises fear that, on Wednesday, one thoroughbred colt France failed to spot will come home at his galloping best.