Antoine Griezmann returns to Atletico Madrid needing to win over fans despite past success

French forward given loud support by national team fans - but after leaving Atletico for Barcelona, he will need to prove himself all over again to the Metropolitano faithful

Up on their feet, loud and affectionate, a crowd of close to 60,000 gave Antoine Griezmann a memorable send off on Tuesday in Lyon. He had been substituted in stoppage time of France’s 2-0 win over Finland so fans could honour his two goals and his piece of history.

A 40th international goal, a superb finish, followed quickly by his 41st, drew Griezmann level with Michel Platini, star of the 1970s and 80s, on the list of all-time top scorers for Les Bleus.

“A very proud moment,” Griezmann said. On the horizon he can glimpse the summit of that list. Thierry Henry, in first place, scored 51 times for his country, from 123 matches; Olivier Giroud, the veteran who was left out of the latest France squad, is on 46. Griezmann is still only 30, two shy of a century of caps, and has a goals-per-game scoring rate that closely mirrors Henry’s.

Sometime in the coming weeks, Griezmann will extend his record as the number one goalscorer for Atletico Madrid. But the applause for his next Atletico goal will not be as resonant as the cheering he heard in Lyon. Since he registered his 133rd for the club, in April 2019, he has spent two seasons away, at Barcelona, a stain on his career as far as many Atleti followers are concerned.

On transfer deadline day last week, he moved back, on loan with a view to a permanent deal if all goes as well at Atletico as it used to. The deal itself was charged with suspense, finalised with little time to spare before the window closed and enabled only by Atletico moving Saul Niguez, the midfielder, off their roster and wage bill and onto Chelsea’s.

Three factors then pushed it through. Barcelona’s well-documented financial issues mean the club who had spent €120 million ($141.9m) to bring in Griezmann from Atletico now want high-earners like him off their wage bill.

Diego Simeone, Atletico’s long-serving manager, wanted Griezmann back. Above all, Griezmann had assessed his time at Barcelona, a period with no Liga titles and two humiliating exits from the Champions League, and was looking nostalgically at his five exhilarating years with Atletico.

There are wounds to heal. In 2018, when Barcelona first tabled a substantial bid for Griezmann, the Frenchman commissioned a long, indulgent film, broadcast online, called ‘The Decision’, about his dilemma about whether to stay or decamp to Camp Nou. The decision then was to stay. When Griezmann then did join Barcelona 12 months later, all those soft-focus declarations of loyalty and kinship with Atletico sounded utterly disingenuous.

On his first trip back in Barcelona colours, he endured a rough reception at Atletico’s Metropolitano stadium. “You wanted to make a name for yourself, and you forgot how to be a man,” said one banner, displayed by home fans. Some of the chants were blunter, and brutal.

Barcelonistas meanwhile found him hard to warm to, after the indecision either side of his broadcasting ‘The Decision’. He joined Barcelona at a bad time, with the club in decline and the forward partnership between Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez so well established that a third member of the attack, however talented, easily seemed out of synch. When Suarez left, for Atletico a year ago, Griezmann gained seniority, but never the same complicity with Messi that Suarez had enjoyed.

The initial deal to take him back to Atletico is a two-year loan, at €10m per season, which would trigger a €40m transfer if he plays a certain number of matches. Barcelona will recoup no more than half the fee they paid to Atletico for him, and they risk again seeing a footballer they have freshly offloaded strengthening a rival, as Suarez did last season. Suarez’s goals fired Atletico to the Liga title, their first since 2014.

They were reigning champions when they signed Griezmann, and they are champions again as they rehire him. In that, there’s a simple message to Griezmann: he needs to add his first Liga title to the other accolades he has achieved in an Atletico jersey, and to demonstrate he belongs in a starting XI where Suarez, Joao Felix and the popular Angel Correa vie for attacking places.

“In the end, the important thing is the performances,” said Atletico president Enrqiue Cerezo, not brushing over the hostility of some supporters towards Griezmann.

“I will understand it if he is whistled by some of our fans,” Cerezo told Spanish radio’s El Larguero programme. “He left in strange circumstances. But he’s shown he’s passionate about coming back to Atletico. There are fans who don’t like it, but others are already thrilled.”

Updated: September 9th 2021, 2:43 AM
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