France vs Morocco live: World Cup updates

For Antoine Griezmann, the first few months of this season have drifted uncomfortably close to indignity. His status at Atlético Madrid, it seemed, had diminished to the extent that he was a mere curiosity, one of the most famous strikers of his era reduced to something between a meme and a punchline.

The problem was not, really, of his own making. A few years ago, Griezmann left Atlético – the team that helped make him a star – for Barcelona. The move, heralded in a LeBron James-style glossy documentary that did little to endear him to anyone, didn’t work out.

The Barcelona he had joined creaked and died away, the dull rumble of thunder gathering in the distance. Griezmann has only played well in flashes and gusts, not the kind of comeback expected – or needed, given the club’s growing desperation – for his exorbitant cost. Last year, he was allowed to return on loan to Atlético, his purgatory in Catalonia coming to an end.

The complications, however, did not end. His loan deal lasted two seasons. If he played a certain number of minutes in the second campaign, Atlético would be forced to pay Barcelona a fixed fee to retain him permanently. Unwilling to commit and hoping to reduce the price, Atlético sought to find a loophole.

Diego Simeone, the club’s manager, started introducing Griezmann only as a second-half substitute. He played 30 minutes here, 20 minutes there. Atlético never confirmed the rationale but that Griezmann was held off as a negotiating technique seemed obvious.

Credit…Jon Nazca/Reuters

Luckily, that particular issue was sorted out ahead of the World Cup. But the damage – at least to Griezmann’s reputation – had been done. Barcelona didn’t want Griezmann. Atlético did it, but only on the cheap. He was no longer the mischievous and inventive striker who had been considered one of the best players in the world a few years earlier. Now it was an afterthought.

And then came Qatar. Griezmann isn’t the most famous member of the French forward line – that title would go to Kylian Mbappé – and he isn’t the most prolific, thanks to the eternal Olivier Giroud. He may not have the world at his feet, like Aurélien Tchouámeni. But there is a compelling argument to be made that Griezmann is the most important member of Didier Deschamps’ squad.

Griezmann may not be France’s star, but he’s definitely the brains. It’s Griezmann who provides the imagination, trickery and craftsmanship. It’s what has always drawn Deschamps home, helping him rack up 72 consecutive appearances for his nation over the past six years.

At this World Cup, however, it was another trait that made Griezmann invaluable. After injuries to Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kanté and Karim Benzema, Deschamps had to build a new approach for the Frenchman on the fly. He had to recalibrate his midfield and adjust the positioning of his attack. Griezmann is the one who makes everything work. He has the intuition to change how he plays and where he plays, to make things go well, and the versatility to ensure he thrives wherever he is needed.

Griezmann always had that gift, of course. He has, at various stages of his career, played on both wings, as a lone striker and as a central creative force. In club, it is possible, even probable, that his versatility slowed him down. Major European teams now play in high-definition systems, in which the specialists required for each role are recruited at great expense. That Griezmann isn’t so easily pigeonholed could, in some ways, feel like a downside.

In international football, however, it is quite the opposite. Even Deschamps, the beneficiary of the fruit of the sport’s most prolific talent farm, must adjust and adapt to what comes his way; he cannot simply buy a solution to a particular problem. In these circumstances, a player like Griezmann, someone who can be anything the coach needs of him, is a rare and precious thing: a Swiss army knife that serves, rather well, as a key.

Credit…Ronald Wittek/EPA, via Shutterstock

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