“Anything can happen in sport,” stated Enrique Cerezo, president of Atletico Madrid. Even Barcelona followed up their decision to allow a striker to leave for free, pay a portion of his salary, and assist Atletico Madrid to win the league by… well, letting a striker leave for free, paying a portion of his salary, and helping Atletico Madrid win the league.
So, Atletico Madrid might not win the league.
Allowing him to return, in fact, compelling him to do so.
Barcelona started talking about a swap deal for midfielder Saul Niguez on Monday afternoon, albeit it would technically be two separate deals. It is possible that it will not happen. Barcelona will not pay any of Griezmann’s salary, which is estimated to be in the neighborhood of €20 million. Atletico does not want the agreement to cost them anything, so they have negotiated a lower price.
Of course, this may be a strategy. It most likely is. But it’s gotten to this point.
That Barcelona has gotten so desperate, in such grave financial straits, that they are attempting to drive Griezmann out, knowing full well that keeping him and Lionel Messi is nearly impossible.
That after everything Griezmann has done, everything he has become, and everything he still has the potential to be, there isn’t a line of clubs forming outside, all keen to sign him, waving large sums of money at Barcelona.
That Atletico stands alone, poised to either twist Barcelona’s arm or walk away.
Griezmann, on the other hand, would cheerfully return. He was, incidentally, like others before him. It’s amusing how things work out.
Well, sort of happily. And it is not like the choice would be his alone. It is not that Griezmann wants to leave Barcelona for Atletico, either; it is that if he has to leave Barcelona, Atletico is an attractive alternative. It’s a club he knows and a manager (Diego Simeone) who backs him; even Profe Ortega, the fitness coach who likes to see the sweat and vomit flow freely from his players, doesn’t scare him. In fact, the way things have been the last couple of years, he might well welcome that work.
But Griezmann did not seek this solution, Barcelona did. If it really is a solution.
For all the doubts that have surrounded Griezmann at Camp Nou in recent years — that lingering feeling that he never quite fit in, that this was never quite his place, that he probably shouldn’t have come in the first place and that he cost too much — the reasons that Barcelona is so eager to move him on are not so much footballing as financial.
Right now, they can’t afford to pay their players: savings have to be made, sales secured. Griezmann may not be the highest earner at the club or even in the top three, but his departure would clear around €20m off their wage bill. Just as importantly, there are still almost €80m still to be amortized on his contract. His departure would help them ease that financial pressure and at a time that — and let’s say this again — they cannot afford to pay their players and the league will not even let them sign them up.
Stuck with a squad high on salaries and low on the desire to depart, Griezmann is one of the few players they can move. And yet even he doesn’t have his pick of clubs, even at a time when it looks very much like he would turn up for free. Is there seriously no one else out there that sees what a bargain this could be?
It’s curious. When he joined Barcelona two years ago, there may have been just one attacking player in the world that did what he did. There was a reason that his transfer fee was €125m, a reason why Barcelona was prepared to go back to him even after he had rejected them the year before — live on television. Problem was, that one player was about to be on the same team as him.
Griezmann — and it’s worth saying this, too — has not been a failure at Barcelona. He has largely played pretty well and he has scored some significant goals — a significant number of goals too (35 in 99 games). Ask people at the club privately, and mostly they speak well of him. And yet it’s not quite enough; expectations for his arrival were far higher than that, and something was not quite right. Add to that a financial crisis and structural dysfunction, and now there are doubts. A situation too in which Griezmann is not in control of his own destiny.
He knows now that Barcelona is trying to push him out, that they have begun a process that they hope can secure their short-term future. Because make no mistake, this is what’s in play here. It is one in which he, and Atletico, hope they may be able to secure their past, and their future too — aware that while Barcelona is pushing for his departure, desperate to get rid, theirs is the upper hand, and time is on their side now. It’s no guarantee that this will happen: it is a complex deal, the agreement just out of reach still.
But there is an opportunity, too.
Big money doesn’t always mean success; Barcelona knows this better than most. Philippe Coutinho was, it was said, but he won the Champions League with Bayern Munich. Luis Suarez was finished, but he won the league. “Madness,” Messi called it. Now Griezmann could be on his way back again. Not everyone will welcome him, not after everything that happened, but at Atletico, they know he can play. They saw it then and now… well, now, anything can happen in football.