Antoine Griezmann is a future star despite the odds against him
When Antoine Griezmann was in primary school, he was tasked with writing an essay explaining what sort of job he would like to do when he grew up. He wrote that he would be a footballer, decorating his exercise books with little sketches of him giving postmatch interviews to television stations. He idolised Sonny Anderson, the Lyon striker, but he wanted to grow his hair long and blond like Pavel Nedved.
Looking back, his parents say now that he was sure his future was in football but for a long time, football was not quite so sure.
As a child, Griezmann left his home in Macon to undergo trials for a host of French teams. Lyon, Montpellier and Sochaux all cast an eye over him. So did Auxerre and Saint-Etienne. He played in games against age-group sides from Paris Saint-Germain. Metz turned him down twice. They all came to the same conclusion: Griezmann was too small. He had no future in football.
Griezmann's future looks like this: On Saturday night at the San Siro, he will be part of an Atletico Madrid side that takes on Real Madrid in the Champions League final for the second time in three seasons. Along with Saul Niguez and, to some extent, Koke, the 25-year-old with the flash of peroxide in his hair is the cavalier among Diego Simeone's roundheads; it is Griezmann who is the free spirit among the foot-soldiers.
Then, in a couple of weeks, he will line up alongside Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and the rest of France's nascent golden generation as they seek to proclaim themselves kings of the continent on home soil, a crown they last possessed some 16 years ago.
In other words, Griezmann could become a champion of Europe at both club and international level in the next two months. The fact that he is even in a position in which that is a possibility means that he did, of course, have a future in football; he was right and all of those clubs were wrong.
If Atletico overcome Real in Milan and France overcome the rest of Europe, the issue at stake would be rather different. In that case, we would have to ask (at the risk of just a little hyperbole) whether Griezmann is actually the future of football.
Who was the last player who was not either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo to be crowned the planet's finest footballer? The answer: Kaka, then of AC Milan, in 2007, when there were two separate awards, before the FIFA World Player of the Year and the Ballon D'Or were conflated. Since then, the Argentinean and the Portuguese have carved the trophies up between them, Ronaldo in 2008, 2013 and 2014; Messi four straight between 2009 and 2012 before going back to No. 1 in 2015.
Trying to debate which of the two is better doesn't just miss the point: it is entirely futile as they're both outstanding. A more interesting question is this: Who will be the first player to end the Ronaldo-Messi era, to win one of those individual awards of dubious significance, and when will it happen?
The favourite, to most, would be Neymar, the natural heir apparent to Messi's crown at Barcelona. Perhaps if he inspired Brazil to the World Cup in 2018 (an ambitious ask, given their travails at present) he might be able to dislodge his teammate and his archrival. He also boasts the global profile, the smooth blend of art and effectiveness, the beauty in the build-up and the devastating punchlines, too.
Some might suggest that the changing of the guard might come sooner than that. There are those who would nominate Luis Suarez, the final member of Barcelona's holy trinity, for the crown this year. He has scored more than any of his peers and rivals and in doing so, he ensured Luis Enrique's side finished the season with a domestic double that somehow still felt a bit like a consolation prize.
Sadly, it does not work like that. Football's individual awards are actually collective: they ordinarily go to a member of the team that has won the Champions League and if that doesn't apply, it goes to the star of the show from whatever that year's major international tournament might have been.
If Real win on Saturday, then it goes to Ronaldo. If they do not, then enter Griezmann. But in truth, there is another Frenchman who might be in line to win the Ballon d'Or instead: Pogba.
Pogba is the standard-bearer of France's national side; he is the player in line for a £70 million transfer to Manchester City or Barcelona or Real Madrid depending on who you ask and depending on who his agent, Mino Raiola, is currently talking to. He has just won another Italian title and most feel that if the hosts are to perform well this summer, he will be at the heart and the root of it.
That contrast between Pogba and Griezmann is fascinating because it is in the former that we can begin to understand why the latter had such a tortuous, circuitous route to where he is now.
Pogba is the counterpoint to Griezmann. The combination of his flawless technique and his fearsome physique meant he was marked for stardom from an early age. Manchester United poached him from Le Havre, his first club and spoke about him in hushed tones. When they took a hard line with his demands for first-team football, they lost him to Juventus, a grand old club willing to give him whatever he wanted.
Pogba was never told he did not have a future in football. Football thought he looked exactly like the future: the body of a bull, the speed of a sprinter and the touch of a ballerina. When both he and Griezmann were first starting to attract the eagle eyes of France's clubs, it was the precise mix everyone wanted. French football (well, football all over Europe) was going to be bigger, faster and better. If you did not tick the boxes, you were ignored.
Griezmann had the speed and the touch, but not the size, so he was overlooked. So, too, was Riyad Mahrez, another in the same age bracket condemned to playing street football and then working his way up the lower leagues. N'Golo Kante was also deemed too small to make much of himself.
What France's clubs had missed, of course, is that the future does not just have to look like one thing. Pogba is the archetype of a modern midfield player; he is everything anyone could look for as a number six, a number eight, a number 10, even. Just as Didier Drogba redefined what it was a striker did, so too might Pogba change our conception of a midfield player.
But then the same could be said of Griezmann. He is a striker, a winger and an attacking midfield player. He can lead the line or he can play behind it or, if asked, he has the pace to get round it. He is the image of the modern attacker, capable even of scoring headers in the very biggest of games, as he proved against Barcelona in the Champions League quarterfinals.
That lack of height and absence of weight is what makes Griezmann what he is: one of the finest attacking players in the world, a source of inspiration for both Atletico and France. It makes him a conception of the future, another vision of where the game is going, separate from but complementary to Pogba. Griezmann is a player who always knew he would make it, even if football was not quite ready for him.
Rory Smith is a columnist for ESPN FC and The Times. Follow him on Twitter @RorySmithTimes.