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The sad end to the Antoine Griezmann-Barcelona marriage

How did one of La Liga’s main stars turn into such a disappointment for Barcelona?

FC Barcelona v Getafe CF - LaLiga Santander Photo by Pedro Salado/Quality Sport Images/Getty Images

Antoine Griezmann was one of the best players in La Liga, and indeed, world football, when he arrived to FC Barcelona from Atlético Madrid for €120 million.

Now, he’s being sold for €20 million back to Atléti, a team that already had him on loan since last season.

What happened?

France’s sixth-most capped player, Silver AtlétiBoot winner in a winning FIFA World Cup tournament, who was also man of the match in the final. Atlético’s fourth-highest goalscorer, and third for the Ballon d’Or in 2018.

When you’re spending that much money for a player with that kind of reputation, it should be a slam-dunk, to borrow a phrase from Griezmann’s second favorite sport.

When he arrived at Barcelona he showed exuberance. He made friends with several players. He even kissed the badge in a promotional photo, surprising given his long association to other La Liga clubs.

On the pitch, however, it never seemed like Ernesto Valverde planned or even particularly wanted his arrival. Valverde had opted between a 4-4-2 shape and a 4-4-3 shape, both with Luis Suárez and Lionel Messi at the head of the attack. Two expensive players had played either as the additional forward or as one of the wingers in the midfield four - Philippe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembélé. Griezmann seemed destined for that role.

Valverde went with a 4-3-3, with Griezmann on the left. Only Griezmann wasn’t a winger and hadn’t been since his early days. He was a second striker, playing off a main striker. A 4-4-2 would suit him fine... if Messi didn’t exist. But since he did, Griezmann had to make due playing on the left. It was underwhelming, but not exactly terrible, over two years playing with Barcelona.

He did have a major role in Barcelona’s last trophy win, the 2020-21 Copa del Rey. Oddly enough, that’s Griezmann’s only domestic major honor in Spain. (He did win the Supercopa de España, UEFA Super Cup, and UEFA Europa League with Atléti.)

Despite his unmitigated talent, you can’t deny there was always something a bit... odd about him. His affection for Uruguay despite having no heritage and no real connection to the country was weird. (“As much as he says he’s half Uruguayan, he’s French. He does not really know what the feeling of a Uruguayan is. He does not know about the dedication and effort to be able to succeed in football with so few people,” Suárez once admonished him.)

Announcing his transfer decisions via documentary a la LeBron James was an unusual choice, especially as James said he came to regret doing so and never repeated such a stunt. Even kissing the badge so early in his career for Barcelona felt off.

Then there were the racial controversies that offended many and had Griezmann apologizing afterwards. During his time at Madrid, he posted a picture of himself dressed up as a Harlem Globetrotter - including brown skin makeup. “I admit it is awkward on my part. I am sorry if I have offended anyone,” he said after deleting the picture off his social media.

Then came a video during his time at Barcelona, when Dembélé was heard making offensive comments towards Japanese people at a hotel. Griezmann doesn’t say anything himself, but he chuckles along.

“I completely refute the accusations against me and I am sorry if I have offended my Japanese friends. I have always engaged against all forms of discrimination. For a couple of days now some people want to pass me for a man that I am not,” he would later say.

The incident caused a huge uproar, especially as Barcelona’s main shirt sponsor was a Japanese company. The forward had to apologize to the head of the company personally.

Even with all the weirdness, declining performance, and tactical mismatch, you can’t say he was a complete bust, as he did have good moments. He always seemed to be trying his best, and he never became lazy or lost all his ability. But he seemed to naturally decline nonetheless, and with time, Barcelona simply couldn’t afford his massive salary. Atlético took him on loan but quickly realized they didn’t want that humongous salary, either.

Over the past few months it had become a game of hot potato, with Atlético refusing to play him often enough to trigger a mandatory purchase clause, and reports saying Barcelona were exploring legal options to force the sale through anyway.

Such a development must have been humiliating for Griezmann, who was once coveted by both clubs and just about every other big club in the world. Despite his decline, he’s still an effective player when given the chance.

Quite why he fell off so much is hard to explain. Yes, he never fit in tactically with Barcelona’s system, but even still, his skill in other scenarios has taken an undeniable hit from his peak - probably around 2018 or so.

Regardless, it’s a new chapter, both for Griezmann and for Barcelona. The forward can focus on getting back to his best in a familiar club, and he’s once again poised to become a key man for France at the World Cup. And as for Barcelona, it’s a shame they lost so badly monetarily on the transfer, but at the same time, it’s sunk cost at this point. Getting 20 million for a player you don’t want isn’t too shabby, and now you can finally move on. It will go down in the history books as an ill-advised transfer for both parties. The only winner is Atlético, and by a clear margin.

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