After a lengthy suspension for a night on the town, the talented midfielder may prove to be the perfect foil for Karim Benzema
It was the most expensive taxi ride of Antoine Griezmann’s life. In October 2012, the Real Sociedad midfielder and four others snuck out of the France Under–21 team’s hotel in Le Havre and took a late-night trip to a nightclub.
Not a club in Le Havre, of course. Which self-respecting young stars want to go out in a blue-collar Normandy port city? No, they went to Paris, a two-hour ride away, to enjoy themselves on the Champs-Elysées, which, as well as being the world’s most beautiful tourist trap, was the focal point for celebrations when France won the 1998 World Cup ten kilometers north. A few weeks later, he and his fellow road-trip party animals were banned from appearing for any French national side for 14 months; 18 months in the case of Yann M’Vila, ruling him out for Brazil.
The excursion was poorly timed, practically and politically. It came straight after a 1–0 win over Norway in the first leg of a qualifier for the U–21 European Championships and only three days before the return match, which the French lost, 5–3, prompting the exit of head coach Erick Mombaerts. It also came three months after four players, including M’Vila, were disciplined for unprofessional conduct during Euro 2012, and with the putrid stench of the squad’s behavior at the 2010 World Cup still wafting like stale Roquefort over French soccer, inspiring the nation’s federation to pursue the sort of zero tolerance government that would earn the respect of Rudy Giuliani.
Indeed, it was not until January of this year that a long-running case involving Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, and allegations of sex with an underage prostitute was finally dropped. Grégory Coupet, the former France goalkeeper, told RMC back in January that Griezmann could be one of the surprise packages in the World Cup squad, but in the same breath said the player should be left out to heighten the punishment for his transgression.
With so much talent yet so much turbulence, head coach Didier Deschamps must feel as if managing France is a high-wire act worthy of his countryman Philippe Petit, the subject of the documentary Man on Wire. So far he’s keeping his balance admirably, with a quarterfinal against Germany at the Maracana coming on Friday. Win and Les Bleus are assured of their best performance at a major tournament since they lost to Italy in the 2006 World Cup final.
Alongside the broad narrative that picks up pace with every France win—redemption for the shame of 2010—there is the personal atonement of Griezmann and the fresh start that this sport inevitably extends to the talented but wayward. Coaches can forgive everything but ordinariness, and there was enough in Griezmann’s performance against Nigeria in the round of 16 to suggest that he merits a start against Germany. Introduced after 62 minutes for the feckless Olivier Giroud to link a torpid midfield with a muted Benzema, the 23-year-old brought the sort of puckish energy that Samir Nasri might have provided had the Manchester City man not been left off the roster, presumably because Deschamps considers him a toxic presence.
Griezmann moved to Spain as a teenager after being rejected by French clubs because of his small stature. He has flourished at Sociedad as a left-sided attacking midfielder, yet only made his senior national team debut in March. Still, he started France’s first game in Brazil, against Honduras, and his busy, breezy style could make him the ideal foil for Benzema.
Coming off a 24-goal season for Real Madrid and with three strikes so far in Brazil, it seems axiomatic that France will flourish if Benzema gets chances. Yet (Jean-Pierre Papin and Just Fontaine aside) France are more noted for creators and connectors than for goal-scoring forwards.
Even Thierry Henry in his prime never attained the same dominance at international level as he achieved for Arsenal. He was important for his country but essential for his club. France even won in 1998 without a top-level striker. In the final, as everyone focused on the health of Brazil’s Ronaldo, the host country started up top with Stephane Guivarc’h, who did not score a goal in the tournament and went on to be a byword for ineptitude at Newcastle United.
Paul Pogba, Mathieu Valbuena, Yohan Cabaye: these are the kind of catalysts who are as likely as Benzema or Giroud to propel France into a semifinal berth that would act as catharsis for past transgressions. And now Griezmann is at least in that conversation. He’s had quite a journey since that night in Paris.