Antoine Griezmann wanted to sit at Lionel Messi's table but not play in his team. Well, he did. And then he didn't. And then he did again. And, in the end, he didn't, only maybe that wasn't the end? It seemed to be all over, but less than a year later, the question has been asked again, the issue raised once more. Confused? Not half as confused as he was. "Was"? Is?
In June 2018, the France international decided that he was going to stay at Atletico Madrid rather than join Barcelona, turning down their offer to head to the Camp Nou. This summer, he may well have another decision to make.
Even back then, Griezmann wasn't sure what he wanted, with doubts dogging him right up to decision day itself. But, while it had taken longer than he planned and had done some damage along the way, at least he got there eventually; there was no going back now. Or should that read "for now"? It was June 14, 2018, and at last, the decision was made: He was staying at the Wanda Metropolitano.
In the past few weeks, nine months later, he has again been linked to a move to Barcelona. He says he's "sick" of all the talk, but he's also been part of it. And so it seems like he, and we, might be made to go through it all over again. And boy, did we go through it. How much he went through was recorded and revealed on screen. The decision was made; "The Decision" was made, too -- a half-hour documentary following Griezmann through the spring and early summer as he tried to work out what to do: join Barcelona or stay at Atletico.
On Saturday, that decision gets tested again, and that test may help to determine what happens next, or whether he does it all over again. Atletico travel to the Camp Nou to face Barcelona in a genuine title decider -- for Barcelona, at least.
The film opens with Griezmann wincing as a tattoo artist attacks his arm and saying something he repeats often: "I don't know. I don't have a clue [what to do]." It closes with him looking at the screen and saying: "I'm staying."
A couple of days later, Diego Costa admitted he already knew Griezmann was staying, and the French striker had phoned his disappointed suitors too, but just about everyone else -- Atletico and Barcelona fans included -- found out that night when the documentary, made by Gerard Pique's production company, was broadcast.
"They were convulsive weeks," Atletico captain Gabi said. "He would tell us he was staying, then he would tell us he was going. It was strange." Costa said it had been "months and months."
In the penultimate scene, you see Griezmann talking to a friend on the phone -- the film doesn't reveal who, but an educated guess might suggest Diego Godin or his brother Theo -- saying, "What [Atletico] are doing is incredible, bro; the players they want to bring in. I feel like saying that I want to stay, mate." And, in the end, he does. In that final scene, he told everyone. "The Decision" ends with Griezmann in a hoodie, music playing. All very stylised, but there's substance too.
Saturday may provide a glimpse of what that decision really meant. At the Camp Nou, there is a title on the line -- albeit not the one Griezmann really wanted -- as he faces the club that thought he was theirs. The documentary makes clear that it was this year's Champions League final at the Metropolitano -- still his home -- that would most define whether he had made the right choice, but it wasn't the only thing. That's gone now, Atletico out. Lose at the Camp Nou and they will be out of La Liga, too. But win and they might just have a chance -- they would be five points off with seven games remaining.
Atletico vs. Barcelona has become Spain's other Clasico; the league's best attack faces its best defence; the winner goes top. Rodri faces Sergio Busquets, master against apprentice, they keep telling us. Diego Simeone faces the team that he hasn't beaten in the league -- he has in Europe, and a draw was enough to win the league at the Camp Nou, remember, in 2014. Jan Oblak faces Marc-Andre ter Stegen. And Griezmann faces the men who could have been his teammates. Like the speedboat on Bullseye, look what you could have won! The team he turned down.
He didn't do so lightly, of course. Between the opening and closing scenes of the film, there are many more, but they rarely go anywhere and not much actually happens, which is part of the point. Instead, they're artfully shot and full of uncertainty. You see him eating often, talking to those around him, wondering what to do, discussing what it all means. You see him play basketball and boules. You hear him repeat "I don't know" a lot. You see Griezmann at home, looking pensive. Griezmann in the car, looking pensive. Griezmann on his plane, looking pensive. And Griezmann riding a horse, looking pensive.
A penny for your thoughts? A lot of them, in fact. The documentary drew criticism, even derision; it was indulgent, some said. Atletico fans were upset at how they felt they had been strung along -- Griezmann recognises as much at one point, hurt though he is at them whistling him in frustration -- and Barcelona were ultimately left hanging, their board embarrassingly unaware of a film produced by one of their own players. That's one of the reasons -- perhaps the most important reason -- why at Barcelona there is some resistance to go back even if Griezmann does become available. Some on the Barcelona board feel that they would lose face if they signed the man who led them along and then shut the door in their face. Some feel they were played. Some see it as a moral question now. Some don't want to risk a repeat.
Once bitten, twice shy.
Beyond the clubs, some in Spain thought it a lot of fuss: an entire film for that? Yeah, yeah, Je pense, donc je suis and all that, but what are you: Barcelona or Atletico? Just announce it. Others were cynical, dismissive of the reasons and authenticity. And yet while it's simple enough to declare choosing between Atletico and Barcelona a dilemma everyone would like, simple to point at the truckload of cash parked and the doorstep and say Oh, for problems like these; while you can debate the necessity of the film, even the duration of it, the advisability of announcing something like this like that; while sneering is simpler yet, and it's tempting to be dismissive, it would be wrong to suggest that the decision was easy and there is value in seeing the debates, the doubts and the discussions.
At one point, Griezmann sighs. "What a mess," he says. The film genuinely does reveal something about the thought process, and in doing so, about the pressure this decision brings, the same pressures and doubts that are being revived now, conditioned and perhaps deepened by the fact that we've all been here before, by the very fact that it was revealed in a film. This was not just a decision taken; it was a decision shared, played out in front of the camera, that invites attention. And if it seeks understanding, it does not always guarantee it.
A lot of the ideas that are aired come together again on Saturday. Twelve months later, does he think he made the right decision? If Atletico lose, Griezmann will be facing a trophyless season. Barcelona will be virtual champions, with a Copa del Rey final to come and still in the Champions League. Look what you could have won.
That matters. There's an emotional element to the decision, and there will be again. There comes a time when it really doesn't matter if you earn a very, very large amount of money or a very, very, very large amount of money.
Griezmann has said since that one of the key moments was when Godin and Simeone came around to his house after he had been whistled by fans frustrated at being left in limbo. In the film he says that "affects" him and his family -- just days after his goals won the Europa League, leaving fans chanting for him to stay at celebrations at the fountain of Neptune in central Madrid. That visit made a difference, and the pull of his team is a thread that runs through it all. Being wanted matters -- Barcelona expressed that by reserving the No. 7 shirt for him.
But perhaps more significant is how that dovetails with the football, a particular idea of success. There's a moment in the film when Griezmann's dad says that it has to be sporting considerations that drive the decision. And while it might be naive to overlook the huge salary that Atletico offered him -- at one point you hear Griezmann's sister explaining why Barcelona don't feel the need to match that -- that does dominate discussions throughout. Importantly, though, it's about his place in that success. Legacy, perhaps, is the word. History, and his place in it.
The Champions League comes up again and again for Griezmann, revealed as an obsession. In the film, there's the nagging doubt he expresses often, the idea that maybe it's not bad luck: Atletico didn't win the Champions League final and didn't win the league because "we always lack something," and perhaps they always will. And if he thought that then, he must think that even more now, after their collapse in Turin. Lose in Barcelona, and that thought will be harder still to push from his mind.
There's a conversation with Barcelona, via his sister, trying to convince him that he can only win the Champions League with them. There's Atletico effectively trying to convince him otherwise, by signing better players, building a team that actually can. And in their own stadium, too. But in the end that has proven a team that can't. It would have been huge: there's a moment when his sister says, if you win it with Barcelona you'd be one of many; win it with Atletico and you'll go down in history. It would be
But for that to be the case, you have to win it.
Here, Messi comes back in. Success would always be Messi's rather than yours, but it might be more likely with him. If last summer that could be doubted -- don't forget it was Atletico who twice knocked Barcelona out of the European Cup, one of those with Griezmann scoring twice at the Calderon -- a year later, after Messi has utterly eclipsed everyone else, it is harder to do so.
Back in the autumn, when these two teams met at the Wanda, Griezmann was asked if in part the decision not to go to Barcelona was driven by Messi, by the idea that he would always be in the Argentinian's shadow. "Could be," he admitted.
There had been something of that idea in Neymar's decision to leave Barcelona for Paris Saint-Germain, too. On one level, it was absurd, even if on another it could be understood. It hasn't really worked. In fact, some in the Barcelona dressing room are convinced Neymar wishes he had never gone and would love to come back. In the buildup to the Atletico-Barcelona game in the autumn, one Barcelona-based newspaper editorial claimed that it hasn't worked for Griezmann either: "He regrets it. A lot."
Does he? What does he feel now? If Barcelona win on Saturday, if Atletico's season, already hanging by a thread, definitively ends, he may reflect that he has not escaped Messi. Better to share a spotlight than stand alone in a shadow.
Since he made the decision -- and The Decision -- Griezmann has won a World Cup. (And, incidentally, imagine how much the film would have been blamed if he had performed poorly in Russia). He has won the European Super Cup. He became a candidate for the Ballon d'Or, but didn't win it (nor did Messi, of course). And he is not going to win the Champions League now either. There's nothing left, except Saturday, the slight chance of a league title. Win there, and there's hope. Small, sure, but some. In front of him, standing on the same pitch if not sitting at the same table or playing in the same team, will be Messi.
If you can't join them, beat them. And if you can't beat them ... well, then maybe there's another decision to be made. Just not on film this time.