Paul Pogba flicked his right foot once over the ball. Then he flicked it again. Then he flicked it a third time. The ball finally floated into the box. Olivier Giroud threw himself in front of Manuel Neuer and Benedikt Höwedes, preventing Neuer from clearing the ball cleanly. In stepped a tiny Frenchman who'd spent his entire career in Spain, ready to toe-poke it into an empty net.
Antoine Griezmann's second goal against Germany propelled France to the finals of UEFA Euro 2016, and Griezmann himself into contention for the tournament's Golden Boot and player of the tournament. Griezmann may have been acknowledged as a superstar by some well before this tournament, but he's now showing an entire continent why he's one of the greatest players on the planet.
The reduced standing of international soccer in the modern game has been discussed regularly here and elsewhere. The World Cup still brings in the biggest revenues and TV ratings, but thanks to the 10-month club schedule and increased investment, technical and tactical innovation almost exclusively occurs at club level. International tournaments like the World Cup, European Championship and Copa América exist for narrative and pride.
International tournaments shine a strong and focused spotlight on great players, however, thanks to the scarcity of soccer in the summer, the relative brevity of the tournaments themselves, and the scarcity economy those factors create. The joke goes that players "go in the shop window" during international tournaments. Everyone's watching them, after all. It's a perfect chance to show the world what you can do.
Griezmann is a sterling example of this. Anyone who's regularly watched La Liga over the last few years knows what Griezmann is capable of. First with Real Sociedad and now with Atlético Madrid, Griezmann has been one of La Liga's best attackers for a long time.
Despite racking up 32 goals for Atléti across all competitions last year, Griezmann has consistently played in the shadows of brighter lights. It makes sense. He moved to the Basque country when he was 14, away from the attention that would naturally greet him had he remained in his homeland. Griezmann featured only sparingly in the French youth system, and didn't earn his first senior cap until he was 23.
Similar forces conspired in Spain. Real Sociedad was toiling in the Segunda División when Griezmann graduated to the first team. He only got a small taste of Champions League football in his final season with the club before transferring to the junior club from the nation's capital. Atlético Madrid has made La Liga a three-club league of late, but Spain is, has been, and will always be ruled by its two giants, Barcelona and Real Madrid. And those two clubs are ruled by the two greatest players in the world, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. It's only natural that a guy like Griezmann would fade into the background.
It's been harder and harder to keep the spotlight off Griezmann in recent seasons, however. He dominated Atléti's attack throughout last season. He's also completely bought into manager Diego Simeone's knife-between-our-teeth playing style. Griezmann defends from the front as much as he creates chances. He works, and he's been rewarded for it.
These talents have been on full display at the Euros, to the point where it would be hard to vote against him as the tournament's best player. Even when France coach Didier Deschamps shunted him out wide in a 4-3-3 in order to get N'Golo Kanté into the side, Griezmann still created multiple chances while scoring three goals on his own. Dimitri Payet may have had all the flash, but it was Griezmann getting the job done.
Kanté's suspension forced Deschamps to shake up his formation, and Griezmann found himself in his preferred withdrawn position in the middle of the park. He got to receive the ball in deep positions and create for Olivier Giroud and anyone else crashing the box. He also made brilliant movements in the box to receive service from Moussa Sissoko and other wide players. He was electric in the quarterfinal against Iceland, and his brace against Germany only solidified his quality. His aforementioned second goal in the semifinal was created by Pogba and facilitated by Giroud, but only Griezmann could have scored it.
France will now take on Portugal in the final on Sunday. The midfield Deschamps decides on will be critical. The French back line has grown stronger as the tournament has progressed, but they will have their hands full of Cristiano Ronaldo. If France hopes to actually score goals and win their third major tournament on home soil, Griezmann will have to be there pulling the strings. Griezmann is a superstar. Now, he gets to be one on the biggest stage of his career.