France faces Portugal in Euro 2016 final
Griezmann leads scoring charts with six
New golden boy of French football
Rejected by clubs for being too small
He was the small kid nobody wanted, forced to leave France to pursue his dream – now Antoine Griezmann, all 5 foot 9 inches of him, carries the hopes of an entire nation.
It is 11 years since a teenage Griezmann waved goodbye to his parents and journeyed south in pursuit of a career which so many had told him would never come to fruition.
In France, there was no room for his type – his slight frame and lack of height was seen as a permanent stumbling block.
It is not unusual: Plenty of others, from Lionel Messi through to Luka Modric, were told similar – and just like Griezmann they too made a mockery of such an opinion.
When Griezmann, now 25, steps out for France against Portugal at Stade de France in the final of Euro 2016 on Sunday, he will be the name on everybody’s lips – size does not matter when you have stature.
His six goals have sparked France’s title dream. He is the player the youngsters want to imitate, he is the goalscorer that Europe’s top clubs covet, and the man who acts, according to those who know him best, as if he would be the perfect son.
“He always plays with a smile,” Eric Olhats, the former scout who took a chance on Griezmann when nobody else would, told CNN.
“I think that’s refreshing in this life where there is a lot of money. At the moment, the people look at him and say, ‘He could be our son.’”
Few know the Atletico Madrid star better than Olhats, who signed the then 14-year-old for Real Sociedad – taking him from his home in Macon, an hour north of Lyon in east-central France, to northern Spain.
As a child, Griezmann was rejected time and time again with clubs citing his lack of height as the reason for their decision.
Lyon, Auxerre, Saint-Etienne and Sochaux all turned him down – but each time he got back up, walked out on the field and scored more goals.
How they must rue that decision now. His parents Alain and Isabelle, always had faith in their son according to Olhats – and they continued to encourage him at every opportunity.
But it was only by chance that he was eventually given an opportunity by Real Sociedad, when one of its scouts turned up at at a tournament after taking time out from visiting friends.
That man was Olhats. He needed just 10 minutes before deciding Griezmann was worth taking.
“I saw a boy that had a very timid appearance but he is like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” says Olhats, who now acts as the player’s adviser.
“He is very timid, very easygoing, but inside he had an inner force, an impressive survival mentality.
“The first time I saw him my attention was drawn to the technique he had, the fluidity of his technique. He was very short but his technique was marvelous.”
Olhats remembers taking a shy, inquisitive teenager to live with him, an hour’s drive from the coastal city of San Sebastian.
At first, the arrangement was supposed to last three months – six years later, Griezmann was still living there.
Olhats made sure Griezmann continued with his education, notably learning Spanish in order to enhance his chances of success.
“It was hard but that’s normal,” he says of Griezmann’s first few months away from home.
“On the Sunday he was with his family but on the Monday he was in a different place with different people and a different language.
“But football was the determining factor to keep him going. He comes from a very humble family who have always had their feet on the ground, and I think that has helped him a lot.”
Griezmann’s sacrifices didn’t go to waste.
After impressing for the reserve team, he made his senior Sociedad debut in a 1-0 win against Villarreal in August 2010.
The previous month he was part of the French Under-19 team that won the European Championship title on home soil, and he continued to move up the age groups as he started to show the promise which had convinced Olhats to sign him.
But it was his exploits with Real Sociedad which propelled him into the consciousness of Spain’s biggest clubs.
After helping the Basque side finish fourth in La Liga in 2012-13, the next season he scored 16 goals for the club, made his international debut and played at the World Cup in Brazil.
He then joined newly-crowned Spanish champion Atletico Madrid in a $33 million move, and soon became a favorite as he finished his first two seasons as top scorer.
In 2015-16, he netted 32 goals in 54 appearances as Atletico finished third in La Liga and reached the Champions League final.
Scarred by missing a penalty in the final defeat against Real Madrid, he made sure he did not fail when his opportunity from the spot came against Germany in the Euro 2016 semifinal on Thursday.
That miss in Milan will haunt him, but his finishing at this tournament has been hugely impressive – nobody has got near his six goals so far, with the closest rivals back on three.
“He is important for the team because he doesn’t need 50 chances to score a goal,” Olhats adds. “He has an incredible technical level. At moments when we are in difficulty or if we have a chance he scores a goal – that’s how it goes with the national team and with Atletico.”
For Olhats, the rapid rise of the once shy teenager caught him by surprise, but even with his newfound status and legions of admirers, he says there has been little change in the man himself.
“Antoine’s more mature but his characteristics are the same,” Olhats says. “He has a freshness for life – a spontaneity. He is a very humble boy who gets on with really easily with everyone.
“He hasn’t changed much but he is a man now. He has a girlfriend but deep down there hasn’t been a change. It has been more of an evolution than a change.”
Griezmann’s parents, as well as his brother Theo and sister Maud, were in Marseille on Thursday to witness his latest exploits.
His two goals were enough to defeat world champion Germany, secure a place in the final and ensure a quick celebration with the family.
Though now living in Madrid, he remains close with both his siblings – his sister was caught up in the attack on the Bataclan concert venue in Paris on the night where 90 concert goers were killed by terrorists.
At the same time as two suicide bombers blew themselves up at Stade de France where Griezmann was playing for the national team in a friendly against Germany, Maud was laying on the floor of the club not daring to move as bullets flew through the air.
They now work together – Maud has taken over as his publicist and helps him secure the most beneficial deals, a far cry from when she used to act as goalkeeper for her brother during her childhood.
She will be at Stade de France on Sunday as France holds its collective breath.
Eight months on from one of the most painful and traumatic nights in the history of Paris and the country, its footballers will step out once again looking to inspire a nation which is still hurting.
For Griezmann and his teammates, this is a chance to bring some solace at a time when the memories are still raw.
“There’s still one match to go to finish with a flourish,” Griezmann said after the victory over Germany. “It’s going to be very tricky but I hope this won’t be the end of things. It’s our duty to win matches for the French public, and let’s hope we can finish on a high too.”