Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

France ace Antoine Griezmann is becoming the unlikely hero

Powering ahead: Antoine Griezmann has been a constant source of danger for France out in Brazil

In France he is regarded as the last Spanish footballer left in the World Cup finals, even if Antoine Griezmann looks unmistakably French.

The moustache and side-parting he sported at the start of the World Cup finals gave the Frenchman developed by Real Sociedad a little hint of the resistance fighter.

Griezmann, 23, is a contender to start the World Cup quarter-final against Germany today at the Maracana, quite some progress for a man with just eight caps who was only eligible for a call-up since the start of the year, having served a 12-month ban from France's national teams.

Thus far he has started two of Les Bleus' four games, with Olivier Giroud preferred as the foil to Karim Benzema against Switzerland and Nigeria, but there is a groundswell of feeling back home that Griezmann might be a better bet for the quarter-final.

It was Griezmann who was integral to the second goal for France against the Nigerians in the last-16 game on Monday, although it was not him who got the final touch.

He can play anywhere across the attacking line, and is the kind of player whom the French are unaccustomed to producing, or so they say. The theory goes he is Spanish in style and instinct, having spent his formative years there. He was 14 when he left France for the academy at Real Sociedad.

In France he is regarded as more Spanish than French, never having played professional football in his home country.

He has been in Spain for so long that the French press have noticed in press conferences he occasionally finds himself searching for the right word in his mother tongue.

He made his Sociedad debut at the start of the 2009-2010 season and became a regular in the second tier in a side that won the league and promotion back to the top flight.

In the new year, at the age of 18, he was given his first call-up for one of France's national teams, having been overlooked until then.

He was part of the France Under-19s team that won the European Championships in the summer of 2010.

He also played a part in a notorious incident with the French Under-21s, proving that it is not just their English counterparts who have a tendency to go off the rails when away with that particular junior side.

Two days before the second leg of a European Championship qualifying play-off against Norway, Griezmann, Chris Mavinga, Yann M'Vila, M'Baye Niang and Wissam Ben Yedder had an unsanctioned night out in Paris.

They returned over night worse for wear and came up against the full might of the French Football federation.

The players were banned and only in December was Griezmann eligible to play for his country again.

By then, his season in the Champions League with Real Sociedad had made him an obvious contender for Didier Deschamps' squad.

When he spoke at the Maracana ahead of the game yesterday, Deschamps gave a simple answer when it came to the key moment in transforming his side: "November 19".

That was the day France won the second leg of their play-off with Ukraine 3-0 and the tie 3-2 on aggregate. It is a measure of how much he must rate Griezmann who, still banned at that time, only made his debut in the friendly against the Netherlands on March 5 this year.

"To be in the France team means they have a number of duties and responsibilities," Deschamps said.

"Spirits have been high since the beginning of our preparation for this world Cup and that is important."

It seems inevitable that Griezmann will play some role against Germany. He is regarded as a good impact substitute and has featured in both games he has not started.

Arsène Wenger is an admirer of the forward although in that respect he will have to join the queue of Premier League clubs also interested.

There is some Germanic about the double 'n' at the end of Griezmann's surname, a nod to the Alsace roots that he shares with Wenger.

He is yet another good French footballer, albeit one produced more by accident than design.

He is "very clinical, scores a lot of goals and creates," Deschamps said when he named the player in his squad.

In the absence of Franck Ribéry, Griezmann could be the man to hurt Germany. His development has been rapid but as ever, one World Cup can make the reputation of a footballer.

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