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The rise of Griezmann: a 'short' story

Twelve years after he joined Sociedad, Griezmann won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot in Euro 2016. With Theodoros Zagorakis, Xavi and Andres Iniesta getting the best player’s award in the last three editions, Griezmann, it may be said, continues a tradition of being small yet effective.

football Updated: Jul 20, 2016 11:22 IST
France's Antoine Griezmann showed at Euro 2016 that height or a big physique is not all that is required to succeed as a forward at the highest level.
France's Antoine Griezmann showed at Euro 2016 that height or a big physique is not all that is required to succeed as a forward at the highest level.(AFP)

Ever the raconteur, Akhtar Ali never tires of telling this story. When he was travelling with Vijay Amritraj on the circuit, the Indian tennis star, Ali says, would tell peers not to go by the size of his coach. Tennis is a tall man’s game but having found ways to get around it, Ali has been ever willing to share that and more with players through the ages; at Kolkata’s South Club, as Belgium’s national coach and with India’s Davis Cup teams.

If someone had told clubs in France years ago what Amritraj did about Ali, Antonie Griezmann may not have been made in Spain. Who knows, he may not have made it as a footballer even had a scout not recommended him to Real Sociedad when Griezmann was 13. 

Football losing Griezmann would have been the equivalent of what the late Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu had said in another context, a Himalayan blunder. Just as it would have been had Gerd Mueller accepted rejection for being short or the Brazil agreed with their psychologist’s assessment of Pele and Garrincha going into the 1958 World Cup finals. 

Twelve years after he joined Sociedad, Griezmann won the Golden Ball and the Golden Boot in Euro 2016. With Theodoros Zagorakis, Xavi and Andres Iniesta getting the best player’s award in the last three editions, Griezmann, it may be said, continues a tradition of small being effective but at 1.75m (5 foot 9 inches), he is also the shortest to win the highest scorer’s award since Klaus Allofs (1.74m) of West Germany in 1980. 

Barring Allofs there are only four players --- Milan Galić (Yugoslavia), Ferenc Bene and Dezső Novák (both Hungary) and Jesús María Pereda (Spain) --- smaller than Griezmann on the UEFA list of golden boot winners since the competition began in 1960 and no one has scored more than three goals in a single edition. True, the format was different and matches were less than this time but that’s half of what Griezmann won his with on Sunday. His tally of six was double that of Cristiano Ronaldo, Alvaro Morata, Olivier Giroud, Gareth Bale and Nani. 

According to whoscored.com, Griezmann got 35% of all Atletico Madrid’s goals in the 2015-16 La Liga (22 out of 62). Among those who scored 20 or more, only Luis Suarez has a better percentage at 37. What’s equally significant is that Griezmann’s rate of winning aerial duels in the league was 1.5 and that’s more than his teammate at Atletico’s defence Felipe Luis (1.3, source: whoscored.com). That of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is 1.4 and Bale 0.9 (whoscored.com). 

Part of that can be attributed to the influence of Uruguayan striker Carlos Bueno at Sociedad. “He copied the way of jumping and heading, protecting his space, from Bueno. He improved so much that we started using him to defend corners too. When he heads, I see Bueno,” former Sociedad coach Martin Lasarte was quoted as saying in The Guardian about Griezmann. 

Smaller footballers usually have a lower centre of gravity and that helps them turn at speed and stay better on their feet. Griezmann’s twinkle-toed early run against Germany in the Euro 2016 semi-final and his second goal encapsulated his technique and agility in the front third. Speed too is usually an asset."His pace was incredible. In training I have played against him and I never had a chance," Franz Becekenbauer has been quoted as saying about Mueller. 

Also, a good header is about anticipation and strength in your legs, both of which can be improved on. Look at Ronaldo, who has put in years in the gymnasium to get a physique that helps him out-leap the beat in the NBA. Or ask Sunil Chhetri or Bhaichung Bhutia, India top two goal-scorers ever. 

Clinically dismantled by Italy at the Euro and outwitted and outmuscled by Chile in the 2014 World Cup, Spain’s reign is over. But while it lasted, it was a lesson in how to rule a football pitch by men Griezmann’s size or smaller. At an average height of 1.80m, Spain were the smallest team in this Euro too but at 1.82m France too were a centimetre below par. And Griezmann was seven centimeters less than the French mean. 

It is not a story without precedent with the Le Bleus. The French team that won the Euro in 1984 had as its heartbeat Michel Platini (1.77m) who scored nine goals in that edition, still a record for a single edition. His aides in midfield would usually be Jean Tigana (1.68m) and Alain Giresse (1.63m). At 1.69m, Didier Deschamps was the glue that held France together in the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euros and allowed Zinedine Zidane to express himself. Just Fontaine, whose 13 goals in the 1958 World Cup remains a record for a single edition, stood at 1.74m in his socks. 

Small then is beautiful when it comes to Frenchmen fronting football teams. Not surprising for a country once ruled by Napoleon.