Former French international Bixente Lizarazu once said that “sometimes, those who start with everything in their favour end up not working hard enough”. The famously diminutive left-back explained that “for us short guys, when we decide to do something we give it 120 per cent”, and added that “the mental side drives you on”.
As a youngster, Lizarazu was turned away from several academies for being too short. However, what he lacked in height he made up for in heart, and the rejection spurred him on to forge a glittering career that included a winner’s medal at the 1998 FIFA World Cup™.
Antoine Griezmann shares more than just a slight frame with his illustrious compatriot. Like Lizarazu, Griezmann was considered too small by a number of youth academies. However, his determination to succeed led to him being spotted by Basque outfit Real Sociedad at the age of 14, and he went on to spend four years at the club’s training academy in San Sebastian.
Clearly at ease with the flair of Spanish football, the winger is approaching the end of an impressive first season in La Liga and is now gearing up to represent France at the FIFA U-20 World Cup 2011 in Colombia. Griezmann’s journey to the top has not been an easy one, but he holds nothing against the teams that turned him away as a youngster.
“On a personal level, I have no hard feelings towards the clubs that didn’t want me,” the 20-year-old told FIFA.com. “It’s true that the training and mentality in Spain is totally different to how it is in France. Here, it’s based around technique more than anything, and that’s my style of play. Still, French academies have produced some very good players.”
A bright future
Indeed, many of those young prospects will be looking to make a name for themselves in Colombia. “We’re going there to win the World Cup and show the whole of France that we youngsters are ready to step up to the mark in the years to come,” said Griezmann, who is clearly confident that he and his fellow Bleuets have what it takes to succeed. “My team-mates have been playing international football since they were very young, so they are used to it”.
Griezmann has only been part of the national set-up for a year, but he already feels well at home in the surroundings. “The coach (Francis Smerecki) put me in the mix straight away, and the other players really were great about it. They made me feel included right from my first appearance,” said Griezmann, referring to his early appearances at the 2010 UEFA European U-19 Championship.
“It really was a magical tournament,” beamed Griezmann, who played his part in helping France win the European title on home soil. “I’ve got nothing but good memories of it. The best has to be the match against Croatia, where we managed to come back from 1-0 down in what was a really tough semi-final,” he said. “Our biggest strength was our squad. We were all united by the same objective, and our substitutes came on and made the difference every time.”
With characteristic modesty, Griezmann omits to mention his two goals against Austria in the group stages set France on course for a 5-0 victory, a place in the semi-finals and a trip to Colombia. The title capped off a successful season for the forward, who also enjoyed promotion to La Liga that year with Real Sociedad.
Guardiola’s seal of approval
Since then, the left winger has made 36 appearances for Real Sociedad in La Liga, and he is sure to feature in the final two matches as the Basque side look to preserve their top-flight status. “For a young player of my age, it’s important to play regularly,” Griezmann said. “I’ve played in every match this year, I’ve had the third-highest amount of playing time and I’ve done it all in a very high-quality league. I’m gaining more and more experience.”
The statistics are certainly impressive, and Griezmann will be hoping to keep up his momentum and help fire Les Bluets to a first FIFA U-20 World Cup title. “I’ve grown in maturity and I’m becoming gradually more complete as a player,” said the young Frenchman. “Every training session I work hard to improve my weaknesses and build on my strengths.”
Those strengths are plain to see, and they have earned Griezmann praise from very high places. “Considering it’s his first season in La Liga, he’s done some fantastic things,” said Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. “He penetrates, he’s explosive and he knows how to get into the area.”
Griezmann dreams of one day working under Guardiola, and the Barcelona manager’s words are sure to provide him with inspiration in Colombia. France face the hosts in their first match in Group A - a section which also includes Mali and Korea Republic. “The stadium will be full as we’re on their home turf,” said Griezmann. “It’s the most important match of the group, and the one I’m dreading most.”
For Colombia’s part, the feelings are sure to be mutual and they will no doubt be wary of getting on the wrong side of Griezmann. After all, as Lizarazu said, “when you’re a young lad and someone says that you’re too weak, that makes you incredibly angry”.