France's 'half-Uruguayan' Antoine Griezmann set for emotional QF vs. friend Diego Godin
In another life, Antoine Griezmann would have been Uruguayan. He would have grown up in Salto, where Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez were born and started playing football, nearly 500 kilometres northwest of Montevideo, the capital. He would have gone to the Penarol academy like Diego Forlan, where he would have made his debut at a young age. He would have left the country to go Europe, somewhere in Italy or in the Netherlands.
The culture, the values, the mentality, the food, the music, the Frenchman identifies himself with everything from this country of 3.5 million people, stuck between Brazil and Argentina on the east coast of South America.
To understand where Griezmann's love for Uruguay comes from, we have to go back all the way to 2009 and Real Sociedad. At the time, his manager was Martin Lasarte, a proud Uruguayan. He gave him his debut and became like a father figure to an 18-year-old Griezmann. The two men are still in touch today.
"Then, Carlos Bueno (the Uruguayan forward), who was at Real Sociedad with me, took me under his wings, taught me how to make and drink maté [a traditional South American caffeine-rich drink made from yerba mate leaves that is almost like a bitter tea]. Every season, I had one or two Uruguayan teammates with me. Emotionally, it will be a very strong moment for me," the striker said on Sunday in his World Cup news conference.
All those Uruguayans made Griezmann feels like Uruguay was his other country. When La Celeste sealed its qualification for the 2018 World Cup, he welcomed back Jose Gimenez and Diego Godin at the Madrid airport in his Godin Uruguay shirt. He watches the Uruguayan league matches, supports Penarol and even knows all the socios' chants. He has a Penarol shirt with the number 7 and his name on the back. He can name all the Uruguay legends, from Enzo Francescoli to Alvaro Recoba or Sebastian Abreu and even Juan Alberto Schiaffino, the 1950 World Cup hero.
What he likes the most, apart from the maté, the drink he loves so much, is the "garra charrua," the incredible fighting mentality or spirit that Uruguayans have in them. "They all play together, for each other. It is beautiful because I experience it every day at Atletico. I love it. It is [Edinson] Cavani's style who defends and attack[s], with Paris like with Uruguay. In the way I think, he is the best striker. He makes 10,000 runs for the ball, never gives up and only needs one or two touches to shoot in the box," Griezmann says.
"What makes me Uruguayan is that I have the style of Diego [Godin]and Cavani, who give everything, never give up and make the efforts for their teammates."
He has a special relationship with Godin, who is the godfather of his daughter Mia, who is 2½ years old.
"Godin made me want to sign for Atletico. He is my best friend, we are always together, at training or outside of football. It is more difficult to play against a friend because he knows everything about me, like I know everything about him and Gimenez who also plays with us at Atletico Madrid," Griezmann says.
Since the Frenchman knows he is playing against Uruguay, he has been texting Godin and Gimenez a lot. He has also been giving his France teammates some tips on how to cause the two centre-halves problems. Griezmann even took a barb at his teammates. "Uruguay will be like Atletico, they will take their time, fall, go to the referee. We will have to get used to that because the match will be boring and they will want to bring us into that," the Frenchman said on Sunday in his news conference.
But the Uruguayans have also started their mind games. Nahitan Nandez even calls him "half-Uruguayan." "Griezmann is very Uruguayan. He passes himself off as a Uruguayan. For him, it's going to be a very special game, like for us. All I can say is that we hope he behaves well on the pitch and remembers he is half-Uruguayan," he told reporters on Monday.
Luis Suarez has a more negative take on it though, clearly not digging the whole Griezmann-the-Uruguayan vibe. "As much as he says he's half-Uruguayan, he's French," the Barcelona forward said on Tuesday. "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.
"I do not know what's going on in his head, but this is the World Cup. There is another mentality. For us it's a special game. I do not know if it is for him."
Griezmann has never been to Uruguay. He had yet to debut for France when Les Bleus played there in a friendly in June 2013 (a 1-0 defeat) but he intends to go very soon. With his best friend Godin, of course.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.