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The French star could maraud the pitch like football’s haunted elite, but instead Griezmann plays the game with a delightful brand of footballing innocence. It could cast him as the surprise French star of the World Cup.

Photograph by Vivien Lavau

Photograph by Vivien Lavau

In 2012, Antoine Griezmann, then 21 years old and already a regular goal scorer for Real Sociedad, went on vacation to New York. His sister Maud came along and filmed much of the trip. The video has an odd charm: Griezmann frolics on the corner of 51st and Fifth, attends a game at Yankee Stadium, dances shirtless on his bed, and plays hotel-hallway baseball with a Yankees-souvenir foam finger. Madame Tussauds is a special treat: He poses with wax SpongeBob and makes jazz hands in the Statue of Liberty’s wax crown. The video inspires nostalgia less for New York than for a sensibility that may only be possible in a young person’s first week in the city: unqualified joy, a sense that everything the world offers is a gift.

Griezmann is 27 now, and on the pitch an unquestioned star: wielder of the planet’s second-best left foot and, as Messi ages, most likely football’s pre-eminent authority on scampering. Yet there is a sense of something still to come, a sense that he has not quite arrived as a wax-statue idol. Perhaps it is only because he has spent his whole career at Atlético Madrid and Real Sociedad, fine sides but not quite charismatic enough for global media saturation.

Or perhaps it is easier to make icons of the haunted. Think of Messi’s talent striving against the Argentine midfield, Ronaldo’s ambition against the fact of Messi. Or Ronaldo fenômeno’s explosive body troubled by his hungering body. Ronaldinho’s playful body that could not stop wanting play. Zinedine Zidane’s menace, Gigi Buffon’s fascism, Pep Guardiola’s non finito, José Mourinho’s death drive. Who remembers Fabio Cannavaro? An icon is a player who has found the flaw in his genius, who competes less against center backs than against his own unsolvability.

Griezmann could have become haunted. As a teen in Mâcon, north of Lyon, he was deemed too small for Ligue 1, and found a trial only at Sociedad. Sociedad, in turn, were never supposed to make the Champions League, but Griezmann scored 52 goals in 201 games to help them get there. A career of delightful overperformances is also a career of painful underestimations—Griezmann is perfectly cast as the designated individual in Diego Simeone’s communitarian Atlético, a side uncertain how spiteful to react to their serial overachievement.

It is to Griezmann’s credit that throughout he has remained not vicious but joyful. He still wears SpongeBob Squarepants underwear on match days; his celebrations refer alternately to Drake and Fortnite. His Instagram eschews models and cars for groany, Griezmann-themed neologisms: A tiny flicking-football game with nails and rubber bands is Grizi-bille; a horse stabled outside Paris Grizi-trot; a new pair of boots SpeedGrizi; a driving-range video #GriziGolf. His career seems to have consisted entirely of dawns.

His worst footballing moment must have been in the 2016 Champions League final: 48th minute. Real 1, Atlético 0. Fernando Torres had been barged by Pepe, but Griezmann took the ball. Real keeper Keylor Navas offered the late leftward dive—not lunging for the corner but loitering near the middle of the net, hoping to involve a limb in anything too scuffed or cheeky.

Griezmann didn’t give him a chance. He shot straight up, toward the Arctic roof of the net. This was an absolutist penalty, a conversation with his own skill rather than the keeper’s position. Let the record state that Griezmann struck it fiercely. Let the record show that he was certain. Navas was still in midair when the ball cannoned off the bar. The match drew 1-1, and went to penalties.

First, Real’s Lucas Vázquez scored. Then Atlético: Griezmann again—first, despite the miss. He spun the ball in his hand and licked his lips and then, as Navas once again hopped left, sent a narrow low ball just to the keeper’s right. A psychological penalty, a conversation with mutual choices rather than skills. Brave, considering the earlier miss, but forgotten after Atlético’s 1-1 (5-3) defeat. Atlético had been supposed to lose—no one’s fault that they lost. In this way Griezmann’s career has passed: unexpected goals, unexpected knockout rounds, finishes behind only the giants of Europe.

There is surplus in his play as well. Griezmann’s great physical gift is his acceleration, and his cognitive gift a nearly unparalleled sense of anticipation. Watch one more goal against Real in a recent Liga derby: His pass, slightly overhit, runs past Vitolo into Navas’s sprawling clearance. And everyone relaxes. Even Sergio Ramos, positioned possibly to clear, settles into his heels and raises a remonstrating hand. On the entire pitch it’s only Griezmann who’s still moving with the ball—he’s followed his original across the box, faster and a little shallower, and now sweeps past Raphaël Varane into the neat right corner of the net. He does the Fortnite dance; half of the Grada sits down.

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In April, after scoring an equalizing goal against Real Madrid, Griezmann celebrated with a dance from a video game—sandbox survival sensation Fortnite, currently earning more than $1 million daily on mobile alone. Fortnite’s “Take the L” dance, featuring an L-shaped right hand and a gleeful hop from leg to leg, encourages the recently slain to accept their defeat. The match finished 1-1—programmers are rumored to be hard at work modeling a “Take the Dispiriting Home Draw” emote. Photograph by Vivien Lavau.

 

A gift: a goal beyond requirements. Atlético and Sociedad have offered this, have blocked and cleared as 10 and set Griezmann off on the counter, where he is swiftest and sharpest across the unplanned meters. This space, and the play he’s found in it, may account for the joy and innocence in both his play and person.

This summer at the World Cup, depending on Paul Pogba’s flickering and Kylian Mbappé’s maturity, Griezmann will most likely be the core of France. And with Simeone’s contract winding down, there are rumors of a shakeup at Atlético—and Grizi-interest from Barcelona, who desperately need ingenuity in front of Messi.

We will be seeing more of this joyous young man, but we will see him differently. There will be more attacks, fewer counters; less excused, more expected. Perhaps, with the growing pressure, there will be a response. At football’s highest level, what can be achieved with joy? What are the limits of innocence?

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