Thursday, 14 June, the day the 2018 FIFA World Cup started, was a strange one for football. Russia, the hosts, surprised critics by thumping Saudi Arabia 5-0. Julen Lopetegui was unveiled as Real Madrid's new manager, a day after getting sacked as Spain head coach. And Antoine Griezmann revealed which club he was going to play for the following season in a documentary on television.
Speculation had been rumbling for more than a year about Griezmann's future. During a French television interview in May 2017, he infuriated fans from his club, Atletico Madrid, by stoking rumours he was set to join Manchester United. When asked about the chances out of 10 of him signing for the Premier League club the following season, he said "six." It was typical of his odd sense of humour.
Two days before the FIFA World Cup finals started, the France international announced in a tournament press conference he had made up his mind about where he was going to play next season, but he added the tease "now is not the moment" to clarify which club it was with—Atletico or Barcelona.
A couple of days later, he tweeted a video message—#LaDecision—saying he would reveal all that evening on a programme to be televised on a subscription channel. In a message, he added the rider: "You're fed up with all the talk—am I going? Am I staying? How much will they pay me? How much won't they pay me? But the truth is what I'm going to say now…"
Gerard Pique, who was set to play for Spain the next day in their opening World Cup match against Portugal, shared the tweet and added a popcorn emoji. The Barcelona defender had skin in the game. It was his production company, Kosmos, that was behind the film.
It had obvious echoes of ESPN's 2010 programme, The Decision, which charted LeBron James' move between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Miami Heat.
Griezmann's documentary had two endings. An hour before being broadcast, Movistar received the ending the striker's entourage had chosen, per Spanish football expert Guillem Balague.
Cameras followed him over a couple of end-of-season months while he agonised over his decision. The film was an extraordinary piece of theatre. It screamed of self-indulgence and reached ingenious heights to make the material stretch over 30 minutes. He was filmed in a car talking to camera, shooting hoops with his brother and having lunch amid a majestic French countryside with his family.
Griezmann took on his starring role with gusto. His default look was the thousand-yard stare of a man silently contemplating a life-and-death decision.
In one scene, he lounged on a chair while his mother talked on speakerphone. They mulled over #LaDecision like a pair of weighty French philosophers. At one point, she said melodramatically: "They [Barcelona] say they haven't won the Champions League in three years, and they want to win it with you."
Barca will have to go it alone on that dream because in the last scene, played against the backdrop of Drake's track "God's Plan," Griezmann made his reveal. With his hoodie pulled up over his head, and him smiling goofily, the camera panned back as he stood outside Atletico's stadium, the Wanda Metropolitano. After the end credits concluded, he tweeted: "My fans, my team, my HOME @atleti."
Barca's job in the film had been to play the fool. A couple of days before it went out, Spanish radio station Cadena Ser claimed it was "95 per cent" certain Griezmann would be joining the Catalan club.
All the noises seemed to suggest as much since the news broke in December 2017 that a Griezmann delegation, including his father and his sister, met Barcelona president Josep Maria Bartomeu in a restaurant in the Catalan city; a meeting which prompted Atletico to make a complaint to FIFA for having one of its players tapped up.
"On the execution side, there is a number of things that happened that were not properly done," says Victor Font, who announced in June his intention to run for the presidency of Barcelona at its next election. "The fact there were leaks that the club had discussions with his manager, the family and related people put Atletico on guard. Probably then they had enough time to try to turn him around.
"Not being able to secure him and lock him in when he was probably very much 'in' and had decided to make the move, that's where Barcelona failed. If the guys who are supposed to be making sporting decisions at the club really thought it had to augment the squad in the next year with someone like Griezmann, not securing him is a big loss because I don't think they will be able to find a replacement of the same quality."
The part of Pique—who has been playing at the heart of Barcelona's defence for a decade—in the production of the film has drawn criticism, and to a lesser extent his club team-mate Samuel Umtiti. The French defender jokingly responded to Pique's popcorn tweet, commenting "I'm missing the popcorn" along with a series of laughing emojis.
With his part in the stunt, Pique, who has been an advocate of more player power during his career, crossed a line it seems, toying with fans' emotions.
"Pique's involvement was indirect," says Font. "It was his production company where he is a shareholder. It's more the fact that he publicised it with his tweet. He basically generated a lot of noise, even with his popcorn sign in the tweet. What Umtiti did was even more awkward."
Barcelona, who were on the cusp of signing Griezmann for a release clause of €100 million—a bargain price given today's inflated transfer market—have missed a trick in failing to get their man.
There are only a handful of players of his quality—a World Cup winner with France and a guy who may well share the Ballon d'Or stage with Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo for the second time at the end of the year.
His stats for Atletico last season, given he had a poor start to the campaign and he plays for a defence-minded team, were impressive; they were his best in four seasons at the club—29 goals in all club competitions, including two in the UEFA Europa League final against Marseille, and 15 assists over 49 games.
Ramon Besa, a journalist with El Pais and the great Barcelona-based chronicler of the club's fortunes, has mixed feelings, however, about the loss. His addition would have had ideological implications. He would have moved the emphasis of the team—which traditionally prizes possession-based control in the middle of the park—from midfield to attack.
"It's evident that Griezmann would simplify Barca's game and give them oomph: it would return them to the era of the trident, more or less, by substituting Neymar for Griezmann, with the advantage that the Frenchman is more of a team player," says Besa. "He has a broader repertoire. He offers more, and he's capable of helping out more.
"Griezmann, besides, scores goals and Barca needs goals because it will be difficult for Luis Suarez to maintain the goalscoring rate he's achieved over previous seasons. But not signing Griezmann permits the club, on the other hand, to find midfielders who are key to their style of play.
"The question is whether they will be able to find them and, on the other hand, incorporating them into the side will mean that Messi has to play further up the field and has to score more goals."
Atletico were able to make a strong case to hold on to Griezmann. Diego Costa had successfully returned to the club, acting as a useful foil for the Frenchman up front and helping to share some of his burden. During the World Cup, the club added the exciting Thomas Lemar, a friend and World Cup-winning team-mate of the striker, to their squad.
"Griezmann can be influenced," says Inako Diaz-Guerra, a journalist with El Mundo. "He listens to [club captain] Diego Godin and [club manager] Diego Simeone over anyone else. They both made a campaign for him to stay."
And, as always, money was a factor, adds Diaz-Guerra.
"Atleti were able to offer him a contract that was equal or superior to Barca," he says. "It's not official but it has been suggested he's on €22 million a season, where Barca were able to offer no more than €20 million.
"Also if Atleti allowed Griezmann to go, Real Sociedad, Griezmann's former club, would have got €20 million of the €100 million. Next season his release clause goes up to €200 million, so Atleti can now keep their best player for a long time or they can possibly sell him next year for a more expensive price."
The future looks bright for Atletico, having got one over on Barca with the Griezmann deal. City rivals Real Madrid have lost their best player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and manager Zinedine Zidane this summer.
Atletico's squad is filled with star performers from the World Cup, including Croatia's Sime Vrsaljko; Uruguay's central defensive pairing, Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez; and France's Lucas Hernandez.
Griezmann, who scored four goals en route to France's World Cup triumph, also had a memorable tournament. He will already have one eye on next season's UEFA Champions League, which concludes with a final at the same place his film ended—the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
"I am sure some people didn't like the video," says Diaz-Guerra, "but he decided to stay at Atleti. He won the World Cup, and he remembered Atleti fans.
"The first thing he did after the video was to message Atleti fans, and he will be playing for them next season for a very important cup. The big objective for Atleti next season is more the Champions League than the league."
All quotes and information obtained firsthand unless otherwise indicated.
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