Is Antoine Griezmann Mentally Ready to Be Barcelona's Next Superstar?

Richard FitzpatrickSpecial to Bleacher ReportMarch 6, 2018

Getty and B/R

It's a rare occurrence when Atletico Madrid fans boo their own player. It happened once several years ago with Diego Forlan. This season, it's happened twice to one player—the club's French striker Antoine Griezmann. During the Madrid derby last November—a 0-0 shutout at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium—a scoreless Griezmann was called ashore by his manager Diego Simeone with a quarter of an hour left to play. His fans jeered him mercilessly.

A few months later, again at the Wanda Metropolitano, Atletico's fans whistled him for choosing to hold onto possession and run down the clock instead of pushing for a second goal towards the end of a 1-0 league victory against Valencia. Griezmann was incensed, and turned to shush the baying mob.

"Atleti's fans are sovereign," says Patricia Cazon, a journalist with Diario AS. "They always cheer their players. What happens at the Bernabeu—when Real Madrid's fans whistle at, say, Benzema or Cristiano—is very shocking. Even with the recent fight between Diego Simeone and Fernando Torres when Simeone said he wouldn't fight for Torres to stay another year, Atleti's fans showed very clearly that they love both of them. In the last game at the Wanda, they sang for one and they sang for the other. But with Griezmann, Atleti's fans were hurt because of the pain of seeing him flirt with another team. It was like a slap in the face."

Griezmann is now heavily linked with Barcelona, but Atletico fans' beef with the Frenchman started in the off-season when Griezmann was casting his eyes towards Manchester United. During an interview on a French television programme called Quotidien (h/t Sky Sports) in May 2017, he was asked about the chances of signing for Manchester United on a scale of one to 10. He replied "six," fuelling speculation that he was set to join Jose Mourinho's side, but nothing came of the flirtation.

As the summer wore on, Atletico—who were shackled with a FIFA ban on registering new players—renegotiated Griezmann's contract, which hiked his salary to almost €15 million net, per El Mundo. The new deal did nothing though to stop him from speculating publicly about the next move in his career.

When he released his autobiography in November, he wrote in it that he had everything he needed to be happy at Atletico Madrid, but added a stinging qualifier: "That does not mean to say I won't go one day." In another French television interview at the time of the book's release, he was fed a leading question, "Would you like to play one day with Neymar and Mbappe?" He said: "Yes." It's difficult to know sometimes whether he's being cruel, honest or gormless.

TOPSHOT - Atletico Madrid's French forward Antoine Griezmann celebrates his third goal during the Spanish league football match Club Atletico de Madrid against Club Deportivo Leganes SAD at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium in Madrid on February 28, 2018. /
PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU/Getty Images

Griezmann has shown poor judgement several times in his career. In April 2012, for example, he caused a ruckus by going to the San Mames stadium to see Athletic Bilbao play their home tie against Sporting Lisbon in the semi-final of the Europa League. At the time, Griezmann was a Real Sociedad player. It's not the done thing for a Real Sociedad player to watch his Basque rivals play live.

"He thought that nothing would happen—that he was only going to see a football match, but in San Sebastian that was a treasonable act," says Inako Diaz-Guerra, a journalist with El Mundo. "He acted without thinking about the consequences of his actions. He had no bad intentions, but it was a mistake."

In December 2017, Griezmann posted a photo to social media of himself blacked up in the image of a basketball player from the 1980s, per Daily Telegraph. When he was criticised for racism, he defended his position by maintaining the getup was an homage to the Harlem Globetrotters, but shortly afterwards he deleted the image and made a public apology in case he had caused any offence. The mixed messages he has been sending Atletico's fans about his playing future display a similar lack of tact.

"His declarations during the summer—when he said that he might go to Manchester United and later there was talk about PSG—showed a lack of respect to Atletico's fans," says Diaz-Guerra. "He was wrong to say those things publicly.

"Griezmann is a happy guy. He's a joker. Sometimes he's a bit immature. He gets on well with his teammates in the Atletico dressing room. They don't have any problem with him. He's good-humoured, always fooling around. Even when he is the star of the team, he's not pretentious, but then sometimes he slips and makes mistakes like in the summer—all this transfer talk, 'Is he going?'—thinking that you can make a joke of everything.

"It was a mistake from Griezmann, especially because it was in public. He is badly advised. He does not have a great agent behind him, or a big team that knows how to advise him. Actually his decisions are taken between him, his sister, and a close friend. Between all of them, they got it wrong. They don't know how the world works so they behave a little bit like teenagers."

BARCELONA, SPAIN - MARCH 04: Antoine Griezmann of Atletico de Madrid controls the ball under pressure from Philippe Coutinho of FC Barcelona during the La Liga match between Barcelona and Atletico Madrid at Camp Nou on March 4, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. (
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Griezmann's older sister, Maud—who has a tattoo of her brother Antoine's date of birth, per the New York Times—survived the Paris terrorist attack on the Bataclan concert hall in November 2015. She acts as his publicist and was part of a Griezmann delegation—along with Griezmann's father—that met with Barca's president, Josep-Maria Bartomeu, in a Barcelona restaurant in December 2017. When news of the meeting leaked, Atletico made a complaint to FIFA about the tapping-up of one of their players, per El Pais.

Griezmann, who shared a Ballon d'Or podium with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo a couple of years ago, is prime real estate. His buyout clause dips from €200 million to €100 million in the summer, per El Pais. It makes him a bargain buy for a club like Barcelona, who splashed more, for example, on his compatriot Ousmane Dembele, who has yet to establish a place on the team's starting XI.

"Atletico have done everything possible to avoid Griezmann going to Barcelona and everything to increase his salary, but I believe the player has decided to go to Barcelona," says Miguel Rico, the journalist with Mundo Deportivo who broke the story about the Griezmann family's clandestine restaurant meeting with Barcelona's president Bartomeu.

"If you asked me two months ago, I would have been sure that Griezmann was going to leave because of what happened last summer and the meeting his family had in Barcelona, but now I'm not so sure," says Cazon. "Griezmann is absolutely happy at Atletico for the first time. He's no longer the team's reference—playing alongside Diego Costa, he is playing more freely. He is able to show his talent. You can see it—he scored seven goals in two league games last week."

Diaz-Guerra concurs, adding that Atletico will try to improve his contract to make him stay—he is already the highest earner in the squad—but the decision will ultimately rest with Griezmann.

Cazon raises the question of where Griezmann would play on Barcelona's star-studded team, which is already stocked with attacking players like Messi, Luis Suarez, Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Andres Iniesta. Also, does he have the mental strength—given his erratic behaviour off the pitch and the way he unnecessarily alienated Atletico's fans—to cut it at a club that is so demanding?

Rico calls for some perspective: "There are few players who have the emotional stability of Messi that is always focused, who ignores everything that happens around him, who doesn't fight with fans or teammates. He is the best in this regard. The rest all have their moments when they can lose their mind. I don't see Griezmann very different in this regard.

"Remember, he's a guy who's played eight seasons in the premier division—four with Real Sociedad, four with Atletico. Early in his Real Sociedad career, Pep Guardiola and Txiki Begiristain tried to sign him for Barcelona—they told him he could start by playing with Barca B—but he preferred to stay playing in the premier division."

BARCELONA , SPAIN - DECEMBER 22: Antoine Griezmann of Atletico de Madrid reacts during the La Liga match between Espanyol and Atletico Madrid at RCDE Stadium on December 22, 2017 in Barcelona, Spain. (Photo by Alex Caparros/Getty Images)
Alex Caparros/Getty Images

Diaz-Guerra also points out that Griezmann may well be flighty off the pitch, but his attitude on it has always been "impeccable." He has no doubts that Griezmann would have the mentality to prosper at a club like Barcelona. After all, he has passed muster with one of football's toughest taskmasters.

"It's very difficult to please Simeone," says Diaz-Guerra. "Look at the transfers that have failed at Atletico—the club has spent a lot of money on Jackson Martinez, Mandzukic, Carrasco, good players. Griezmann has shown great fortitude to succeed under Simeone. His personal profile off the pitch has nothing to do with his performances as a footballer."

According to El Mundo, Griezmann has made a gentleman's agreement with Atletico to inform them by April if he intends to stay or leave next summer. If he departs—and it seems Barcelona is top of the queue for likely destinations—it will be interesting to see if he bucks a trend and thrives beyond the Simeone orbit.

"Griezmann would go to Barcelona to win titles, to possibly win the Champions League," says Cazon, "but all the players who have left Simeone's Atleti either failed or they returned to Atleti."

      

All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.

Follow Richard on Twitter: @Richard_Fitz

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