SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) — Too small. Too frail. No future in French football. Antoine Griezmann defied plenty of skeptics by becoming the highest scorer at the European Championship.
France’s hopes of a first title since Euro 2000 rest largely on the slim shoulders of Griezmann, who is on the small side for an attacking player at 1.76 meters (5-foot-9).
The 25-year-old forward scored with an excellent finish and set up two more goals as France swatted aside Iceland 5-2 on Sunday to set up a semifinal against Germany.
“It will be great if he carries on being the top scorer in the competition,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “He’s a very efficient player and is excellent technically. We’ll need more of the same from him on Thursday.”
He may be the toast of French football today, but it hasn’t always been that way.
There was no comfortable route through the well-reputed French football academies for Griezmann, who was so exasperated at being rejected by several French clubs for his small stature that he went to Spain as a teenager, joining Real Sociedad in 2008.
How Lyon and other French clubs must cringe with embarrassment now. Even his current club — Champions League runner-up Atletico Madrid — may struggle to keep him.
His affable and calm demeanor belies a tough interior. His difficult route to the top has made for a refreshingly blunt speaker.
After France’s labored win against Ireland in the last 16, Griezmann revealed what was said at halftime — giving a rare insight into changing room politics.
“We said things to each other, basically that we needed to ‘move our butt,'” Griezmann said. “(Otherwise) we would have all looked like idiots.”
For a player of his size, he is remarkably good in the air, uncoiling his slight frame to unleash considerable power. Two of his four goals at this tournament have been headers – which he recently said he has been practicing since the age of eight.
But that’s only part of what defines his game.
Griezmann’s awareness, touch and skill — allied to pace, a low center of gravity and great movement — make him extremely difficult to mark and he has the uncanny gift that top players have of finding space.
When he’s not scoring, he’s also dropping deep and spraying cushioned passes around with unwavering accuracy.
He is also a lethal one-on-one finisher, as he showed against Ireland last weekend with his second goal in a 2-1 win.
His goal on Sunday night, on the stroke of halftime against Iceland, was even better. Collecting Olivier Giroud’s delicate flick, he drew goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson off his line and then floated the ball over his shoulder for his 11th international goal.
It was a finish that Barcelona great Lionel Messi would have been proud of for its mixture of technique and composure.
Against Iceland, Griezmann also created goals for midfielder Paul Pogba and Dimitri Payet, who has begun a habit of kissing Griezmann’s trusty left boot in thanks for a goal.
It’s a scene that Deschamps clearly wants to be repeated on Thursday.
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