Football is deemed to be a sport which for centuries has been suggestive of spirit. Today, it stands synonymous with spectacle. Record-smashing transfer dealings, eye-popping wage figures and stardom bordering on a deified status – to stamp one’s authority in the most decorated chambers of the professional game, one ought to be as much a pop-culture influencer as a professional role model. Unfortunately (and sometimes fortunately for those within the sport), for quite some time now, the former has been chipping away at the latter’s binding principles. Footballing superstars these days take stardom very seriously, almost to a point where entire careers are premised on the need to catapult themselves to glory. Heritage clubs turned mercenary behemoths are no less culpable in the entire affair. To put it charitably, their involvement only compounds the problem.
The Antoine Griezmann transfer saga, which I must insist has been painfully drawn-out over the past couple of years (much to the chagrin of the fandom and speculators), is a quintessential instance of all that is going awry with players and clubs alike. More so by ones that are supposed to uphold the ethos of the game by virtue of their superior status, historically and professionally. Whoever said that with great power comes great responsibility never cast a glance in the direction of how football branding is done these days. Players are bought not to place the team on a better footing vis-à-vis rivals in cup competitions, but to project the brand image and increase market valuation. Every transfer window, players are on the move with clubs abrogating heritage values and smashing transfer records as if it is the order of the day. A case in point would be the Antoine Griezmann transfer saga.
French by nationality, Antoine Griezmann (fondly referred to as ‘Grizzi’) is a prolific footballer and rumbustious goal-scorer whose name has been doing the rounds in the international sports columns (specifically the Spanish Press) for all the wrong reasons. Hailing from his hometown in Mâcon, Griezmann committed the early days of his senior career to Real Sociedad and lifted the Segunda División title in his first season itself. Highly estimated from that point onwards, interest flocked in from major clubs of Europe within a fortnight. However, no club was willing to match the price tag set by Sociedad on their treasured winger. Five seasons and many negotiations later, Atlético Madrid agreed to bring him into their ranks for a then club-record fee amounting to €30 million. Griezmann’s talent earned him plaudits from the Rojiblancos faithful and his technique flourished. The swashbuckling display of football meant that he instantly became the focal point of the squad.
Without any element of doubt, Antoine Griezmann went from being a promising to a phenomenal player in one season. He surpassed the Madrid club’s goal tally for a debut season and was featured in the 2014–15 La Liga Team of the Season. He has also been conferred the title of La Liga Best Player in 2016 and finished third for both the 2016 Ballon d’Or and 2016 Best FIFA Men’s Player awards. Antoine consistently went on to prove his mettle when he was again nominated for the awards in 2018, finishing third and sixth respectively. His sensational form buttressed Atlético 2017–18 UEFA Europa League campaign and his brace in the final secured them the trophy. In a matter of just five seasons, Antoine Griezmann became Atlético’s fifth highest goal scorer. At UEFA Euro 2016, the host country, France, secured a podium finish as runners-up in the tournament. Griezmann emerged as the highest scorer and was voted as the Player of the Tournament. He later went on to lift the 2018 FIFA World Cup, scoring four goals and finishing only second in numbers. It earned him the Silver Boot, the Bronze Ball as the third-best player, and the Man of the Match medal in the final.
A week back, in the surcharged transfer market of July 2019, Griezmann’s lawyers terminated his contract with Atlético and he entered into a new agreement with league rivals FC Barcelona. His release clause worth €120 million being paid, it made him the fourth-most expensive signing in club football’s history. But the essay to sealing his dream-move to Catalunya hasn’t been all that seamless. Discussions regarding his behaviour and sportsman-spirit have been rife for quite some time. To understand why Griezmann has incurred the ire of his previous club, one needs to track back to the summer of 2018.
In a drilling analysis by Bleacher Report, the entire fiasco bears recall to a moment that was supposed to be the defining point of Antoine Griezmann’s career. Transfer rumours constantly linked Griezmann with a move to FC Barcelona but at the penultimate moment, an agreement fell through. The French striker aired a video documentary called La Decision and brought an end to all conjecture surrounding his future. He announced that he was staying at Atlético Madrid. Here’s where things went downhill.
To publicly turn down a club of Barcelona’s stature and that too without informing them of the same was bound to send shockwaves in the Blaugrana boardroom. The club distanced itself from the player and he found the Atlético faithful questioning his loyalty; the fans felt that if he felt connected to the club, he wouldn’t need a documentary to mull over it for so long. Nevertheless, they were delighted to retain their marquee player (after having lost the likes of Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, Fernando Torres, David Villa and Diego Costa to financially strong clubs over the past few years) and the Frenchman donned the familiar colours once more.
Robert Dunne, an eminent sports journalist offers us a peek into how things have panned out since then –
“There was hope that this was the year, with Atlético’s directors really setting out their stall about wanting to be in the Champions League final at the Wanda Metropolitano. The whole season has been a bit of a disaster really, and Atlético has so many questions to answer in the summer that there hasn’t been much reaction yet.”
It wasn’t meant to be. A shambolic performance in the Champions League by conceding three goals in the second leg despite having a two-goal lead over Juventus in the first leg, set in a mood of depression and desperation. It is somewhere around this time or slightly prior (as Atlético allege) that there was a resumption of contact between Barcelona and Griezmann. Moreover, the tightly-knit unit built by Diego Simeone was on the verge of disbanding with Diego Godin and Lucas Hernandez likely to leave the next summer (they have as of this date). It is possible that at such a juncture, Griezmann could have had a change of heart.
Dunne offers his point of view-
“Godin is one of Griezmann’s closest allies in the squad and the one who stopped the Atleti fans from booing him during the whole debacle last season. He was so important in convincing him to stay. Lucas Hernandez is possibly, and probably, on his way to Bayern Munich, which is another French player gone out of the squad. Thomas Lemar hasn’t settled at all, and his future is in the air after Griezmann really pushed for that signing. Also, fans are probably thinking if they are going to rebuild, why not cash in on a player who is getting €20 million a year and spread those wages around a little. If the question over his future keeps popping up at every bump in the road, then why not eliminate the speculation by just getting rid of it while his value is still high.”
Gillingham surmises that it is entirely plausible that he looked around at this team and wonders how things might have gone if he’d joined Barcelona the previous summer. This moved him to push the envelope and get Atlético to let him leave. Yet again, he released a video to publicly announce his departure.
The turn of events has left the Atlético boardroom with a sour taste. Irrespective of Barcelona’s controversial action of poaching their most coveted player, Atlético’s beef with Barça has reached a whole new level of pettiness with the former refusing to let it go. Atlético believe that Barça negotiated Griezmann’s transfer before the scheduled date (July 1) of his release clause contractually dropping from 200 to 120 million. They are pushing for an additional 80 million from Barcelona. The allegations, however, seem to be unfounded despite fitting into the common trope of bigger teams tapping players of smaller clubs. According to league rules, a player always pays his release clause and not the next team he is joining. Given this rule, Barça are nowhere in the scene as Griezmann himself terminated the contract. Nevertheless, La Liga president Javier Tebas has revealed that Atlético Madrid have indeed filed a complaint. At this stage, to prepare for another turn (of Griezmann’s move being blocked and he being sent back to Atlético) in a transfer saga that has already exhausted everyone seems like an uphill task.
Picture Courtesy- The National