How a Scout on Holiday Turned Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann into a Star

Ben Lyttleton@@benlytSpecial to Bleacher ReportMay 25, 2016

Rory Martin for B/R

The business card was handed over long before Antoine Griezmann's decisive goal for Atletico Madrid in the UEFA Champions League semi-final at Bayern Munich. It was before the striker became the highest-scoring Frenchman in La Liga history, before he played for France in the World Cup or helped his country win the UEFA European Under-19 Championship.

By the time a guy saying he was a scout for Real Sociedad gave Antoine his card in 2005 and told him to have his father get in touch, the 14-year-old had been turned down by many French clubs, among them Lyon, Auxerre, AS Saint-Etienne and Sochaux.

That's why Alain Griezmann thought this new approach was some kind of joke.

After all, not long before, Metz had shown interest in his son, telling him to come down one weekend for a trial, but the club then cancelled at the last minute, saying Antoine was too small.

Alain had played football, ran the local club where the family lived in Macon and understood that not everyone in the industry was genuine. As he told French football magazine So Foot in 2014, he soon learned that Eric Olhats, the French scout representing La Real, was different.

Antoine had just played at a tournament arranged by Paris Saint-Germain at Camp des Loges, the club's training ground. He was there as part of a trial with Montpellier. But while all the other Montpellier trialists were wearing club tracksuits, Griezmann was wearing his own clothes: He played in a T-shirt with the word "Jamaica" on it.

Olhats tells Bleacher Report he was not even meant to be there. He had just landed at the Paris airport after a scouting trip to Argentina and received a call from some friends in the industry who wanted him to come and say hello. They were watching the youth tournament. Olhats turned up. Griezmann only played 10 minutes, but that was enough.

Griezmann in Real Sociedad colours against Barcelona in 2011
Griezmann in Real Sociedad colours against Barcelona in 2011Getty Images

"I fell for his technical skills," Olhats says. "His technique may still be improving, but the talent that I saw that day was intuitive."

But that still did not make Griezmann a natural fit for Real Sociedad. For a start, Olhats was a first-team scout; he was not working for the academy. Then there was the reason for his visit in the first place: to see friends, not to scout. Olhats was concerned about the ethics of an approach, he says, so he made some calls and found out neither Montpellier nor Lyon were interested in Griezmann.

"I knew the youth-scouting criteria at that time, in France at least, were mainly related to athletic and physical abilities," Olhats says. "And Antoine did not fit into that at all. In Spain, I knew that we were more into letting time take its course. If I had worked for a club other than Real Sociedad, I don't think they would have taken Griezmann on their books."

Griezmann was football-obsessed as a youngster. His grandfather on his mother's side, Amaro Lopes, played for Pacos de Ferreira while Alain was a coach at the local club in Macon. His mother, Isabelle, remembers that in Grade 6 he wrote that he would make it as a professional footballer.

His younger brother, Theo, found a cartoon in the back of a school textbook in which Antoine had drawn himself being interviewed by Canal Plus, the main football broadcaster at the time, including the questions and answers. He wanted to grow his hair long so he looked like Pavel Nedved.

Griezmann at the U-20 World Cup with France in 2011
Griezmann at the U-20 World Cup with France in 2011Getty

Olhats had waited a week before speaking to Alain, who had been on holiday at the time of the tournament. Once he had done his due diligence, he passed his details to Antoine at the awards ceremony and told him to tell his dad to give him a call.

After they spoke, Olhats drove to Macon to meet Alain and spent a further four days convincing the family to allow Antoine to come to Spain for a trial. The scout did not want to leave without Griezmann.

"I no longer believed [he would make it as a professional] when he was spotted by Eric," Alain told L'Equipe magazine. "I was sceptical at the time, but Eric convinced us to let him go to San Sebastian."

The 14-year-old didn't have an easy time in Spain. He missed home, especially his mum's tartiflettes, and there were sometimes tears when he was back home for the holidays and had to fly back to the Basque Country from Lyon airport.

Alain and Isabelle agreed that Antoine could stay with Olhats at his home in Bayonne, an hour's drive from San Sebastian, back across the border in France.

"I took care of him as a player, as a kid, as someone who needs affection and advice," Olhats says. "I was a father, a mother, a teacher, everything. The situation was sometimes complicated because sometimes he felt sad, and he had to cope with his parents' being away from him. But the family is clever and well balanced, and that made it easier."

The language was the first problem to conquer; the youngster did not speak any Spanish. Whenever there were unfamiliar drills in training, Griezmann would go last so he could work out what was needed by watching his team-mates.

Griezmann was quiet and watchful. When he was first called up to France's under-19 squad, team-mate Alexandre Lacazette saw him sitting alone in the corner and wondered if he spoke any French. He found out the answer when Griezmann sang at his squad initiation.

He is proud to be French but has now lived in Spain for so long that he once told L'Equipe he feels more like a Spanish player. He even speaks to his dog in Spanish.

Olhats confesses to having had doubts about whether Griezmann would make it. He pushed him hard on his schoolwork, knowing it might be a necessary fallback if the football career did not come off. He often found it hard to motivate the teenager.

Two years after moving to the Basque Country, Griezmann, then 16, was promoted to the reserve-team squad ahead of the 2007-08 season. Martin Lasarte was coach then—he would go on to be in charge of the senior team from 2009 to 2011—and was impressed the first time he saw him.

Griezmann up against Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic in 2013
Griezmann up against Manchester United's Nemanja Vidic in 2013Getty Images

"Antoine wanted to play as an attacking left midfielder, and he was always alert in training," Lasarte told So Foot Club. "He asked questions and always wanted to learn." The coach used Griezmann first as a substitute and then as a starter.

Around that period, Griezmann could have moved into the academy at the club, but Olhats says the teenager preferred to stay with him in Bayonne, even though it was a long commute.

Griezmann would always ask Olhats to drive the car past the club's Anoeta Stadium, Olhats says. "One day, I will be playing there," he would say with a laugh.

That debut happened in September 2009. Lasarte was in charge. Griezmann had befriended a group of South American players who included Claudio Bravo and Carlos Bueno, from whom he picked up the habit of drinking mate, the tea beloved in Argentina and Uruguay. He still drinks the tea before games. Lasarte would invite Griezmann to his house for dinners where, after food, football chat was on the menu.

"We watched videos together and talked about the details of his game. We wanted to polish this diamond," Lasarte told So Foot Club. "We knew he had a certain frailty. But he was fast and his morphology improved over the long term. What he needed was that time which allowed him to work."

He was afforded the time, and in his first season he scored six goals.

Frenchman Philippe Montanier was appointed coach in summer 2011, and Griezmann continued to be decisive. He scored 19 goals (in all competitions) over the next two seasons—including one in a 2-2 draw against Barcelona. Real Sociedad finished fourth in La Liga in 2012-13 and that summer were pitted against Lyon in the final round of Champions League qualifiers.

This was the moment that Griezmann burst into the consciousness of the French audience. In the first leg at Stade Gerland, he scored a stunning left-footed bicycle-kick from the edge of the area.

Griezmann celebrates scoring against Lyon in 2013
Griezmann celebrates scoring against Lyon in 2013Getty Images

La Real won 4-0 on aggregate and made it to the group stage. Griezmann scored 16 Liga goals, 20 in all competitions, in the 2013-14 season. That was enough to earn him a €30 million move, in summer 2014, to Atletico Madrid.

At first, he found life under Diego Simeone tough. "There was a tremendous intensity in training sessions, and for the first half-season, it was hard," he told radio station RMC. "But I worked very hard."

He scored 22 goals in 2014-15, the most ever by a Frenchman in a single Liga season, surpassing Karim Benzema's 21 at Real Madrid three years earlier. He was voted La Liga's Player of the Month for January and again in April.

Griezmann told L'Equipe at the start of this season that he had improved tactically. Defences have found that out the hard way. He's an explosive striker who can switch expertly across the front three. Like every Atletico player, he works hard to press the opposition and tracks back diligently.

He is also not fazed in the big games. In the last few months, he has scored the winning goal in the Madrid derby at the Bernabeu (February), both goals in Atletico's 2-0 Champions League quarter-final second-leg win over Barcelona (April) and in May the decisive away goal that knocked out Bayern Munich in the semi-final.

Griezmann has been the subject of big-money transfer rumours to Chelsea and Manchester United, but he told Spanish newspaper AS last week that he plans to re-sign with Atletico (h/t Metro's George Bellshaw).

Olhats says his biggest success is getting the youngster to get his BPEC diploma at 15. It's the qualification that gets children into high school, but Griezmann's schedule of school in the morning, training in the afternoon and homework after that was exhausting.

Griezmann at Atletico Madrid's media day ahead of the Champions League final
Griezmann at Atletico Madrid's media day ahead of the Champions League finalGetty Images

As a reward for passing the exam, Olhats enrolled Griezmann in a correspondence course for his education, so he could work from home in the morning and train in the afternoon.

Griezmann responded to the new system and learned Spanish within five months. It had taken Olhats three years.

Olhats still speaks to Griezmann every day and can't quite believe his former charge's career—Real Sociedad, Atletico Madrid, France regular—has panned out as it has.

"Antoine had an interesting profile, but I have to confess that I never thought he could reach the level he's playing now," he says. "It's unbelievable. I often tell him that his life looks like a movie, but the kind of movie I would have stopped watching early on, saying, 'No, this movie is rubbish, this doesn’t happen in real life.' But it was real life."

It was only fate that brought Olhats to that tournament in Paris in the first place. Griezmann only played those 10 minutes. Now he is France's top player going into a European Championship on home soil, having won the European Championship with France under-19s, reached the World Cup quarter-finals and broken scoring records with Atletico.

Olhats was right to trust his judgment when he saw the skinny kid in a mismatched T-shirt in that Paris tournament—just as Alain and Isabelle Griezmann were right to let their son go to Spain.

As Olhats put it: "If someone had told me all that when Antoine got in my car at Macon all those years ago, I would have said: 'Where do I sign?'"

Except as noted, details of Griezmann's early life and career come from multiple articles in So Foot, So Foot Club and L'Equipe magazines. Eric Olhats interview conducted by Ronan Boscher on behalf of Bleacher Report.