The Best FIFA Football Awards™

The Best FIFA Football Awards™

Thursday 17 December 2020

The Best FIFA Football Awards™

Griezmann's first coach on the boy who became a star

Antoine Griezmann of France react during the national anthem
© Getty Images

France had just lost the final of UEFA EURO 2016. Amid the euphoria and heartbreak, all that Antoine Griezmann could do was watch Portugal lift the trophy – and, struggling to wipe away his tears, the tournament's top scorer and best player could barely manage that. There had been tears a month earlier too, when the France forward had seen Cristiano Ronaldo hoist another piece of silverware aloft following Real Madrid's UEFA Champions League showpiece victory against Atletico.

For Griezmann, this was nothing new. Finals have developed a painful habit of ending the same way for the 25-year-old, who can no longer hide from the post-match jamboree. How much easier it was when the Griezmann of today was still just little Antoine from Macon, a bright-eyed young talent taking his first steps in the game.

"The first year I had him we hadn't lost a game all season and I recall a tournament in Macon where we lost the final on penalties," says Griezmann's first coach Bruno Chetoux, giving FIFA.comthe rundown on the Atletico ace's early playing days with UF Macon. "He cried and he was so upset that he left without waiting for the award ceremony and without collecting his medal."

Griezmann was just five or six at the time, but football was already more than just a simple hobby. "Even then he always wanted to win and he was always looking to improve, which is rare at that age," adds Chetoux, who cannot remember ever seeing the French international without a football. 

"He had a ball at his feet as soon as he learned to walk. There was a little pitch near to their house and as soon as he got out of school he used to go there to play. On Wednesdays, when I went to pick him up for training, he was already playing there with his friends or just on his own. He could stay there for hours. He always had a ball with him."

'Forgotten anything?'
That early passion for the game was so powerful that Griezmann sometimes forgot the usual routines and obligations of a child his age. "His mother told me an anecdote which really shows how football had already become the most important thing to him," says Chetoux. "One day he was leaving for school and his mother asked him, 'Antoine, have you got everything? You haven't forgotten anything?' 'No mum,' he said. 'I've got my ball!' But he'd actually forgotten his schoolbag."

Chetoux played with Griezmann's father and is a longstanding friend of both the player's parents, but he has no trouble putting those links to one side as he recalls watching the youngster from the sidelines. "He had exceptional technique, he was very skilful in front of goal and when he had the ball at his feet it was difficult to take it off him," says the Burgundy native, who has coached many children down the years – but precious few as precocious. 

"He never forgot to drop back and defend when necessary. He already had a feeling for the importance of team effort and a tactical understanding. We coaches try to communicate the importance of team effort and he fully grasped that, even though it's also good when a player's capable of making the difference on his own. For him, both those things were linked."

Griezmann's gifts blossomed at a rapid pace in Macon and he began to dream of a professional career – only to find the doors closed to the various training centres where he applied. Judged too short and too slight physically, his route seemed to be barred. "That surprised me, but that's how it was in French training centres at the time," says Chetoux.

 "They were taking on more physical players. I used to watch him playing for teams of 13 and 14-year-olds. If you weren't strong or didn't run quickly, you didn't make it. Nowadays we've moved back to developing smaller, livelier and more technical players. Perhaps it's partly down to Antoine and his success that we've become more interested in a different type of player."  

Spain was ahead of the curve in recognising Griezmann's more subtle qualities, and it was no coincidence that he first caught the eye of a scout from Real Sociedad. Given a chance to prove his worth in San Sebastian, Grizou promptly rose through the Spanish club's ranks and joined the first-team squad aged 18 in 2009. 

He did not stop impressing there, and grabbed regular headlines for the next five years until earning a move to Atletico Madrid. Hitting the ground running under Diego Simeone, he was voted best player in the Liga last season in just his second campaign with Los Colchoneros – finishing ahead of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

When the time comes
"I think he still has room for improvement compared to those two," says Chetoux, who feels Messi and Ronaldo's achievements need to be placed in context. "They're lucky enough to play for clubs which have the best players. 

"Atletico are clearly a good team, but I think Messi and Ronaldo are surrounded by better players, all of them being huge individual talents. It's something you can't know for sure, but if Antoine had been surrounded by the same players in the last few years, perhaps he would have scored as many goals and would already be at the same level."

Either way, the Frenchman is now closing in on that lofty duo, and his name almost inevitably crops up in debates about the world's best footballers. Almost. As his own club coach Simeone said back in January, "He's not one of the best. I urge him not to listen to what people are saying and just carry on improving. He can still progress because he's a young player who works hard. When the time comes, everything will fall into place for him."

El Cholo had a point, and Griezmann's time may well have come. Since those comments at the turn of the year, the forward has come agonisingly close to a European title with both club and country, and he is now in the running with Messi and Ronaldo to be named The Best FIFA Men's Player 2016 in Zurich on 9 January. 

"The fact that he's competing with them enhances the quality of his performances this year a little more," notes Chetoux. "Ronaldo will perhaps be chosen as the best, firstly because he's a really great player and also because he won the Champions League and EURO. But if Antoine had won those competitions, I wonder if their positions wouldn't be reversed."

Whatever happens in Zurich, Chetoux is confident that Griezmann has what it takes to reach the top of the podium at some point in his career. "Whether Antoine wins or not, I hope he continues improving. If so, one day he'll be the best player in the world." 

And what a proud day that would surely be for his first coach, who only reluctantly accepts that he too had a role to play in his former protégé's rise. "I'm modest, but sometimes I tell myself that if one per cent of his success is down to me and my colleagues who coached him back in the day, that would already be pretty good."

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