The closing scenes from Atlético Madrid’s Champions League victory over Porto on Wednesday were equal parts amazing and bizarre. In the 11th minute of what had already been an action-packed period of stoppage time, Atlético’s Thomas Lemar swung in a cross from a corner kick. Standing by the near post, Axel Witsel leapt in front of a gaggle of Porto players, and with his bushily afroed head sent the ball arcing high toward the back post. The angle was too wide for Witsel’s effort to find the net itself, but it carried all the way to an unmarked Antoine Griezmann, who managed to sneak a header in between the far post and Porto defender Pepe’s scything foot to score the match’s decisive goal.
The home crowd went wild. Griezmann peeled off toward the stands with his face buried in his jersey as he more or less tongue-kissed the Atlético badge, his torso a blur of red and white and peroxide-meets-swimming-pool blond-green. Atleti’s players mobbed their savior. Manager Diego Simeone sprinted down the touchline to join them. So much joy and happiness, all inspired by a player the club would rather not see out on the pitch very much.
It’s important to note that Griezmann, Atleti’s biggest star, started Wednesday’s match on the bench. In fact, Griezmann has not once been in the starting lineup for Atlético this season, instead getting substituted into all five of the team’s matches right around the 60th minute. This is no accident, nor is it a reflection of Griezmann’s quality in relation to the club’s other forwards. That the Frenchman has yet to start a match, and will not start one for the foreseeable future, is purely a financial decision.
All of this goes back to Griezmann’s transfer from Barcelona to Atlético last summer. Because of the particulars of Griezmann’s previous transfer from Atlético to Barcelona—the enormous fee Barça paid, the enormous salary Griezmann earned, and the amortization rules that spread those costs over several years—it was always going to require some creative accounting for Griezmann to return to Atlético. The rough terms the clubs eventually settled on were these: Griezmann would join Atleti on a one-year loan; if he played at least 50 percent of the minutes he was available to play—meaning if he played at least 45 minutes in at least half of the matches he was healthy for—then the loan would be extended by an additional year; if in the second year Griezmann met the same playing-time threshold, it would then trigger a compulsory transfer for €40 million. Along with all the loan/transfer fine print, the move required Griezmann himself to agree to a reported 40 percent pay cut—right around €10 million net per year. The clubs settled on the terms, Griezmann agreed to the pay cut, and off he went to Madrid.
Last season Griezmann was a regular starter at Atleti, and the minutes he played triggered the second year of the loan. From looking at the team’s roster you’d imagine that Griezmann would again be one of Atleti’s key players this season. Instead, he has been quite conspicuously relegated to a super sub role.
It didn’t take long for everyone to realize that Griezmann’s lack of starts was due to Atlético’s desire to avoid paying Barcelona that €40 million transfer fee. Simeone tacitly admitted the plot a week ago, when he responded to a question about his decision not to start the Frenchman yet this season by saying “I am a club man and I always will be. … It is better to play 30 minutes well than 60 minutes badly.” Atlético struggled last season and has struggled in the early parts of this season. The team could really use another creative, goal-scoring forward to inject some inventiveness and danger into its moribund attack. And yet the club refuses to build around the creative, goal-scoring forward it has right there on the bench because it wants to weasel out of the money it’ll cost should Griezmann play the minutes his talent deserves.
This turn of events has not gone over well in Barcelona. Griezmann’s contract, transfer fee, and depleted value after his painfully disappointing years in Barcelona made the French star one of the biggest albatrosses weighing down Barça’s already over-burdened finances. Getting Griezmann off the books was crucial to the financial turnaround that led to this summer’s spending spree. But right as Barça believed it had wiped its hands clean, Atlético is trying to foist the player and his huge salary right back on Barça.
In a proactive effort to prevent that from happening, Barça has filed an official grievance against Atleti. At issue is a difference of opinion about the specifics of the previous transfer. Barcelona claims that the playing-time provision applied only to the first season of the loan, and that the second loan season was just part of the mandatory purchase; under that reading, Griezmann’s playing time in the 2021–22 season by itself made the eventual €40 million permanent transfer compulsory, no matter how much Griezmann does or doesn’t play this year. Atleti’s understanding of the agreement is that the playing time provision applied cumulatively to both the first and second loan seasons, and that as long as Griezmann’s playing time this season is low enough, Atleti will not trigger the automatic purchase and thus Griezmann will again be a Barcelona player at the end of this season.
From the outside, it’s hard to have any firm sense about which side will come out on top of the legal battle. And while the eventual ruling will have big implications for both clubs no matter how it shakes out, the clubs’ fates aren’t the most compelling here. If anyone has a right to feel aggrieved, it’s Griezmann himself. Remember, Griezmann agreed to cut his salary nearly in half just to return to the club and manager he loves. Though he’s so far only shown brief flashes of his superstar form from his original spell at Atleti—and, at 31 years old, there’s no telling if he can ever get back to that level consistently—he’s still one of the very best players Atlético has. Especially coming into a midseason World Cup, before which he would not start a single game if Atlético had its druthers, it’s pretty shitty to see him restricted to half-hour cameos just because his club is being cheap.
The good news for Atlético is that none of this seems to have affected Griezmann’s love for and determination to help the club. His three goals in all competitions makes him Atleti’s co-leading scorer thus far. Whenever he’s stepped onto the pitch, he’s transformed matches with his skill and energy. He of course scored what could prove a crucial game-winner against Porto, celebrated with a passionate kiss of the badge, and said after the match that “I am very happy here. I want to give everything for the club, for the fans, for Cholo [Simeone], and to enjoy it.”
Presumably part of Griezmann’s willingness to eat shit like this is his desire to rebuild some of the bridges he burnt during his last couple seasons at Atlético, when his flirtations with Barça enraged Atleti fans and curdled what had been a beautiful player-fanbase relationship. Hopefully things get sorted out soon, whether it’s because the arbitral tribunal rules in favor of Barça or if the two clubs settle the matter by agreeing to lower the €40 million transfer fee. The league, the club, and especially the player all deserve to have Griezmann out there on the pitch doing his thing without any limits.