The end of a great career never comes easy, although at his third World Cup finals, a century of caps for France long since passed, Antoine Griezmann finds himself playing a different way in a different era as the clock ticks down.
In Brazil in 2014 he was the emergent talent as a previous generation passed into history. At Euro 2016 he was the golden boot winner in a French team that fell just one game short of triumph in a home tournament. Then, in 2018 he was the mature star, granted the indulgence by the French federation of making that documentary about his club career, and ultimately a key figure in changing the course of the final.
More than four years on, at 31, one of the leading players of the last decade has found himself marginalised in his club career to the extent that his appearances for Atletico Madrid have become something of a running joke. Or at least a joke that runs strictly for no longer than 29 minutes.
He famously cannot play for more than half an hour in more than half of Atletico’s games lest he triggers the sale clause agreed with his parent club Barcelona, written into his loan deal. The long-trailed career move to the Nou Camp became a nightmare with consequences that still have an effect even now. If the same restriction was to be imposed in Qatar where there are such bountiful amounts of stoppage time, he would be playing even less than a third of all games.
For France it is a different story. He is a favourite of his manager Didier Deschamps. He is the third highest goalscorer in the history of the France team, with 42 in 112 caps. He may no longer be the biggest attacking star, but with Karim Benzema out the tournament with injury, and so many others missing too, Griezmann is the lead man in the ensemble behind Kylian Mbappe.
With three goals in two games, and playing like a man who has been waiting for this moment for years, Mbappe looks like the best footballer so far at Qatar 2022. Yet whatever he achieves, Griezmann will be lurking around the edges of the masterpiece. He was there in the critical moments in this 2-1 win over Denmark that propels France into the second round with one game remaining, and playing a very different kind of role.
As France hunted that winning goal in the final stages and Deschamps reordered his attack to supplement the Mbappe effect, he chose to leave Griezmann exactly where he was. Griezmann is no longer the striker who is asked to stretch defences with his running, or hold up the ball as he did in his best days with France and Atletico. Instead Deschamps has switched him to play just behind the two strikers, Mbappe and Olivier Giroud.
He was masterful in that position, delivering the ball to the back post for Mbappe’s winner from close range. The run was, of course, perfectly timed, but it was the trust that Mbappe placed in the delivery that was striking. The No 10 commits to a handful of maximum speed runs a game and when he does so it feels as if France have activated some kind of advantage inaccessible to the rest. Griezmann’s first half throughball to Mbappe that needed Andreas Christensen to take a booking to stop the attack was arguably the game’s moment of highest quality.
Griezmann is, like the rest of his team-mates, serving this great match-winning phenomenon. Even in his thirties, Griezmann still looks like a doleful drummer boy in a doomed Napoleonic battalion, but his commitment to the team is what strikes a chord with his manager. Unlike the truncated nature of his role at Atletico, when it comes to France, Deschamps always picks Griezmann. The Denmark win extended his unbroken run of appearances for France to 69 games, going back to June 2017, when he was an unused substitute against England in Paris.
After the win at the Stadium 974, Deschamps spoke more effusively about Griezmann than any other player, including Mbappe. He conceded that the nature of his loan deal with Atletico was hardly ideal. “We know what happened with his club and he wasn’t in the best situation from an athletic point of view,” Deschamps said. “He has racked up a lot of games [for France] and I am asking him for something different from club level.”
“But there’s no sacrifice – he is so generous. He loves being part of the build-up. I imagine in his new role he won’t score as many goals as he is used to because he has two strikers ahead of him. "He is an intelligent player, he is able to make those sacrifices and he brings balance to the team. We have a lot of attacking players but we need to bring balance.”
Deschamps wondered if he might have played Griezmann on the right instead of Ousmane Dembele but he followed the train of thought and came to the conclusion that his little soldier was better where he is. “He loves winning the ball back with a tackle. He is able to work wonders with his left foot. He is great on set pieces as well if we need him.”
Another World Cup winners’ medal would place Griezmann in a category so elevated that only 21 men in history can currently lay claim to having won more than one – and only four of them are Europeans. They were Italians who were part of the side that won back-to-back titles in 1934 and 1938. Griezmann would have the rare distinction of having played a lead role in both triumphs. A long way to go, over the next few weeks – but what a prize.