The complicated legacy of Antoine Griezmann’s Atletico Madrid career

MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Antoine Griezmann of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Valladolid CF at Wanda Metropolitano on April 27, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images)
MADRID, SPAIN - APRIL 27: Antoine Griezmann of Atletico de Madrid looks on during the La Liga match between Club Atletico de Madrid and Real Valladolid CF at Wanda Metropolitano on April 27, 2019 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Quality Sport Images/Getty Images) /

Antoine Griezmann controversially left Atletico Madrid in 2019 to join La Liga foes Barcelona. After a five year run in Madrid, debate has arisen over his questionable legacy with the club.

The subject of loyalty has been a tough pill to swallow for the Atletico Madrid faithful. They have seen club favorites like Sergio Aguero leave on bitter terms and Thibaut Courtois join rivals Real Madrid. The most recent player to go from a hero to villain in the eyes of Atletico fans was Antoine Griezmann. His departure in 2019 created more division and tension within the club than they had ever seen before.

To say that Atletico fans were not pleased by Griezmann’s transfer to Barcelona last year is an understatement. Following the official announcement of his move, Atletico fans defaced Griezmann’s 100+ club appearances plaque outside of the Wanda Metropolitano.

When Griezmann returned to the Wanda last December for a league fixture with Barcelona, Atletico supporters finally let out their frustrations be known to him. The hostile and uneasy stadium atmosphere made fans at home feel like they were about to watch a heavyweight fight. For a stadium in which he became a beloved superstar, he was now Public Enemy No. 1.

Fans and club ultras La Frente jeered the Frenchman every time he touched the ball.  A group of supporters even went as far as chanting “Die Griezmann,” for which Atletico were later fined.

It is not rare to see a player go from being touted as a fan favorite to a traitor, especially in world soccer today. Case in point being both Luis Suarez and Philippe Coutinho where each player’s controversial departure overshadowed much of the impact they made on Liverpool. And there are countless more cases.

But in Griezmann’s case with Atletico, his “heel turn” is more unique because of all the circumstances and incidents that culminated in his eventual transfer. His relationship with the fans and even club officials was strained long before his move to the Blaugrana.

For one, Atletico fans were seemingly accustomed to the annual Griezmann summer transfer rumors, which surely irritated those within the club.

In 2017, Griezmann was heavily rumored to leave for Manchester United only for talks to stall after Atletico’s upheld transfer ban ruling. As a result, the Frenchman decided to stay.

“It’s a hard time for the club,” Griezmann said. “It would be a dirty move to leave now. We talked to the leaders and we will be back for next season.”

Griezmann’s sign of loyalty garnered respect from the fans, but others felt differently. Later in the transfer window, he wound up signing a new contract which made him Atletico’s highest-paid player at a reported annual salary of €13.7 million. Many presumed Griezmann’s antics over the summer were all done in a calculated effort to gain leverage in contract talks. This theory did not sit well with Atletico fans.

A year later, Griezmann managed to outdo himself. After months of speculation over a possible move to Barcelona in 2018, he decided to produce “La Decision,” a documentary which followed the Frenchman for months as he mulled his footballing future. In the end, he spurned Barcelona and stayed with Atletico, but his reputation among the Atletico fanbase took a hit as he also signed another new contract that reportedly increased his yearly salary.

Fans questioned Griezmann’s loyalty to the club. If he truly loved the club and desired to be the next Atletico icon, he would not have gone to great lengths to fuel the transfer rumors.

Even Aguero — who fans today are still disgruntled with — did not elect to undermine the club by holding transfer talks with multiple teams. Many look to Koke and Saul as the gold standard for loyalty; they each have received interest from teams like Barcelona but have turned them down each time.

The following year was essentially the last straw for fans and club officials. Griezmann announced his departure in May with a low-key goodbye video message but only after being rejected from making yet another documentary.

Atletico fans reached the pinnacle of their frustrations with Griezmann not because he decided to sign with Barcelona but more so due to the apparent pre-agreement between club and player. Barca were later slapped with a mere €300 fine over breaching league rules of negotiating with a player under contract without the permission of the owned club.

Griezmann’s final remarks about why he left infuriated some even more.

"“I left Atléti to learn a new game, new philosophies — to learn another type of football with another team.”"

His comments about Atletico on the entire transfer debacle continued to tear down more bridges.

"“We reached an agreement but finally it changed, it’s like that, you have to accept it. Regarding Atletico, it’s a pity. I went to see them on purpose so they would not be caught off guard and could prepare for the future.”"

After years of tolerating and defending Griezmann, Atletico fans were left with a sour taste in their mouth and a feeling of betrayal. They had been by his side through the high and lows only for him to leave in controversial fashion. But their toleration expanded to more than just the transfer debacles.

As most remember, Griezmann infamously posted a picture on social media of him wearing blackface along with an afro wig and an NBA All-Stars jersey. He later deleted and apologized for the post, but this was not something that fans could instantly forget about.

It seemingly never stopped in the rollercoaster of controversies with Griezmann.

Amongst his now-former teammates and coaching staff, there were mixed feelings because they all were by Griezmann’s side until the very end as well.

For instance, Griezmann was heavily jeered in the final home league game of the 2017-18 campaign amidst the rumors surrounding his potential move to Barcelona. Instead of leaving it be, Diego Godin and Diego Simeone instructed the crowd to cheer for the Frenchman.

In the big picture, teammates like Saul appreciated the impact that Griezmann left on the club but was not a fan of how he left.

“He [Griezmann] was a very important player for Atletico Madrid and the fact he left makes it complicated for us,” Saul said. “I believe the way that he left wasn’t the best but he doesn’t need to be abused for it either.”

This has all culminated into the disagreement over his legacy at Atletico.

On one hand, Griezmann has etched his name in Atletico record books whether the critics like it or not.

He ranks fifth on the all-time goals list in Atletico Madrid club history and is the team’s all-time leading goalscorer in the Champions League. Trophy-wise, the Frenchman helped bring home a trio of silverware, including the Europa League title run in 2018.

From the 4-0 league thrashing of Real Madrid to the elimination of Barcelona in the Champions League, Griezmann made an influential impact during his tenure with Los Rojiblancos.

But then there is the glass half empty perspective with his run. Despite those standout performances, Griezmann is widely remembered for his struggles against both Barcelona and Real Madrid, with a combined nine goals in 36 games in all competitions against the two. Most notably, fans and media criticized him for his penalty miss in the 2016 Champions League Final — a memory which Atletico fans will not soon forget.

And of course, the array of off-field controversies mentioned that made him a polarized talent. He simply did not pan out to be the leader and face of the club who could reignite the fanbase during the ups and downs. Simeone touched on this when comparing the impact of perennial club legends like Fernando Torres and Diego Godin to Griezmann.

“His [Griezmann] was significant from the sport,” Simeone said. “The others [Torres and Godin], in another way, have set fire to the hearts of Atlético fans.”

Simeone is right to a large extent. Griezmann produced for Atletico on the pitch and even helped brand the club commercially. His marketability as a player garnered revenue for the club in merchandise sales and ticket revenue, especially when Atletico went out on summer preseason tours. According to Deloitte, Atletico’s revenue rose from €177 million in 2014 to €368 million in 2019. Now, of course, there were a multitude of other factors for Atletico’s grand rise in revenue, but Griezmann surely played an influential role in their growth as a club.

Still, Griezmann was never able to bond with the fans and create a formidable connection with them in the same way former teammates like Godin did. The Frenchman garnered support from fans for his sheer number goals, but Godin earned respect for his pure leadership and mentality of doing whatever it takes on the pitch to churn out results. Godin was simply the one who the working-class percentage of fans could resonate with more.

At the end of the day, opinions on Griezmann will all depend on which Atletico fan you ask. Some still appreciate and cherish the moments that catapulted him into superstardom while others largely resent him for his actions off the field.

Time heals all wounds, but this one is a little more complicated. Maybe if he had left in the same respectable manner as Godin or Juanfran, the Frenchman might not have earned as harsh of a detestable reputation.

Atletico Madrid supporters will surely continue to boo and whistle Griezmann when he returns to the Wanda with Barcelona, but maybe someday the feelings of resentment will fade away.

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