“They didn’t create any chances,” Germany manager Joachim Low moaned following the Euro 2016 semifinals. And yet somehow France scored two goals in the 2-0 victory, both from its newest hero with the unique backstory, Antoine Griezmann.
One, admittedly, was a penalty awarded after a handball following a set piece, but the other was a classic piece of poaching. There was something very old-fashioned all around about that second strike–a cross, a goalkeeper stretching with a striker bearing down, the loose ball prodded in. It felt anachronistic, which perhaps goes some way to explaining Germany’s greatest problem in this tournament–and also why Griezmann has had such an impact.
Germany, for all of its fine technically assured midfielders, has lacked a striker for five years or so. Miroslav Klose was pressed into service at the World Cup at the age of 35, while at this tournament it used Mario Gomez, who had largely been written off as too profligate after the last Euros. The dearth of other options was highlighted by the fact there was nothing even approaching a like-for-like replacement when he succumbed to injury.
This, perhaps, is a wider problem of academies, something Arsene Wenger has been talking about for a few years. Academies, he says, encourage across-the-board skills, are not specialized enough, while playing always on manicured pitches in a controlled environment means streetwiseness is never engendered.
“Society has changed,” he said in 2014. "We are much more protected than we were 30 years ago. We have all changed. We have all become a bit softer. [The South Americans] played street football, park football, football with friends.
“Maybe in our history, street football has gone. In street football when you are 10 years old, you play with 15-year-olds, so you have to be shrewd, you have to show that you are good, you have to fight, to win impossible balls. When it is all a bit more formulated, then it is less developing your individual skill, your fighting attitude. We have lost that a little bit in football.”
Griezmann didn’t come through an academy. For what it’s worth, neither did his international teammates Laurent Koscielny, Dimitri Payet, N’Golo Kante or Olivier Giroud.
In fact, Griezmann had been rejected by every French academy he had applied to when, at 13, he played in a trial game for Montpellier in Paris.
At the end of the match he was approached by a man who gave him a folded piece of paper and told not to open it until he got home. When he did, there was a name and a phone number. He called it. Spanish side Real Sociedad wanted to sign him.
Griezmann moved from Macon in Burgundy (although his Germanic surname is from Alsace) to Bayonne in southern France where he stayed with scout Eric Olhats, the man who had handed him the paper, so he could continue his schooling in French while traveling over the boarder into Spain for football training.
He has the guile, the hardness that Wenger says too many academy forwards lack. Martin Lasarte, the Uruguayan coach who gave him his debut for Real Sociedad, explicitly compares him to Luis Suarez, saying they share the same drive, the same professionalism, leavened by a sense of mischief.
He learned at La Real from Uruguayan forward Carlos Bueno, whom he credits for encouraging his heading so he is a threat in the air despite being only 5’8” and then at Atletico Madrid, whom he joined in 2014, he was taken under the wing of two other Uruguayans, Diego Godin and Cristian Rodriguez. So great has been their influence that Griezmann drinks mate, the bitter herbal tea so popular around the River Plate, while, when he ran away celebrating after scoring France’s second against Germany, he shouted, “Vamos!”
But the greatest Uruguayan influence is perhaps in the way he plays. There is grace and skill but there is also hardness. He has taken on the role as the leader of the attack. L’Equipe has dubbed this “Generation Griezmann” and has described him as the “most decisive French striker since Thierry Henry." But not even Henry scored six goals in a single Euros (with a game to go) as Griezmann has in this tournament.
In fact nobody, of any nationality, has since Michel Platini scored nine in 1984, a tournament France won as the host.
There is, of course, also a symbolic quality to Griezmann's story. As he played at the Stade de France when it was the target of a terrorist attack last November, his sister, Maud, was at the Bataclan Theatre where 89 people were shot dead. They have become representative of a spirit of French resilience, perhaps even of some sort of pan-European ideal: Griezmann, after all, is a Frenchman with a German name, had a Portuguese grandmother and was brought up as a footballer in Spain.
After France won the Euros in 2000, all the talk was of the Clairefontaine academy and the benefits it had brought the national side. If France wins it this time, it may be that France becomes the poster team for a less-structured system.