If it was ever a thing in the first place, we’ve long since dispatched with the idea that media folks shouldn’t function as PR flacks for the leagues they cover, so it’s en vogue these days to say that certain sports—the NBA and European soccer in particular—are year-round, but they’re actually not if only for the obvious fact that the games stop happening at a designated point and the athletes return to civilian life for a while. Stuff happens in the offseason, but it’s more the illusion of activity than anything, and calling the time when a few players switch teams and a few coaches get hired sports is like calling the little interview and trivia segments AMC theaters put together movies. The transfers and trades and signings: that’s game-adjacent commerce. If there’s not a ball or bodies in motion, it’s not really what we’re here for.
And yet it’s all there is to be fascinated with, so we are. Antoine Griezmann’s been going to Manchester United for six months, if you’re prone to believe the British tabloids, and if you aren’t you’ve wondered what the hell they’ve been so certain about this whole time. There are one or two of these every summer: Pogba to United, De Gea to Real Madrid, Costa back to Atlético Madrid. Protracted transfer talks. The moves go through or they don’t, but they drag on in such a way that tests the patience of everyone involved. While this particular saga isn’t likely to stretch into August—Griezmann has said he wants to sort the deal out in the next couple of weeks—it’s been going on in some fashion for half a season and recently peaked in pitch last Wednesday when a relatively mediocre United squad qualified for the Champions League through the Europa League back door. We’ve got him, one of the best forwards in the world was the consensus among elated United supporters. But it’s not that simple.
Athletes lie all the time for the sake of fending off media harassment, but Griezmann has given numerous statements this season that he’s happy at Atlético Madrid and doesn’t see much reason to leave. That sentiment checks out: in a down year marred by bad injury luck and curiously poor performances from a few regular starters, Atleti made the Champions League semifinal, finished third in La Liga, and were just barely knocked out of the Copa del Rey by Barcelona. In 2015-16, they lost the Champions League final to Real Madrid on penalties and finished three points behind a Liga-winning Barça team. Atleti are always going to be outmanned by Spain’s big two, but over Diego Simeone’s tenure, they’ve had immensely talented squads and been in the hunt for a variety of trophies. And not for nothing, so long as the team is good, who wouldn’t want to be young and rich in Madrid?
This isn’t to say that Griezmann isn’t or shouldn’t be tempted by Manchester United. He grew up idolizing David Beckham and if United aren’t great right this second, they have the resources to swiftly become as great as they once were. Atleti have quite a bit of money, but there’s a tier of player that’s off-limits to them: your Paul Pogbas, your Gareth Bales. United can afford one of those kind of signings—plus a handful of other still-very-pricey deals—per summer, and they can pay massive salaries to their stars. In theory, United should be awesome every year, and in theory, Atleti should be a nice club who only occasionally make a decent Champions League run. But the reality for the past five seasons has been different. United have been struggling, relative to their lofty standards, and Atleti are experiencing perhaps the best extended run in the club’s history.
That run is under threat by a two-window transfer ban handed down by FIFA for the same reasons Barcelona and Real Madrid were sanctioned: Atleti were stocking their academy with foreign teenagers. I’ve written about the specifics of the illegalities of this, but in broad strokes: European clubs can’t sign and import Ghanaian and Brazilian fifteen-year-olds to youth contracts and separate them from their families. It’s immoral and most of the kids end up washing out, which means they’re effectively stranded in a foreign country with no support system. FIFA are right to police this kind of activity, but it seems they might have been overzealous in prosecuting Atleti, so the case is currently under deliberation with the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which executives at Atleti believe will overturn the ban.
Here’s something the British press is consistently getting completely wrong: if the ban is lifted, that makes it more likely Griezmann will stay in Madrid, not less. If Atleti can’t sign anyone this summer, Griezmann will probably give up on the project. He’s at the peak of his powers and the squad is slightly lacking. It’s understandable that he wouldn’t want to waste a season playing for a team that, as currently constituted, needs a starting striker and some new midfield blood. If the ban is lifted, which is something we’ll know in the coming week—European bureaucracies take their sweet time—Griezmann is going to use his leverage to force the sometimes-stingy Atleti board to spend. They seem willing to. Alexandre Lacazette is all but a done deal. Sandro Ramírez, who impressively scored fourteen goals for a dire Málaga side, is interested. Diego Simeone has reportedly insisted upon Vitolo—maybe the best pure winger in Spain and a workhorse who would fit the manager’s system perfectly. These players are eminently gettable, and they would make Atleti as strong as they have ever been, from a talent standpoint. Throw in Simeone’s coaching acumen and Griezmann’s irreplicable skill and you have a squad that’s ready to compete for everything. United, even with José Mourinho and a small nation’s worth of capital, are still at least season or two away from that level.
Of course, who the hell knows what will happen. Griezmann’s been inscrutable and contradictory in recent interviews. Recent reports say he wants out, but as recently as Monday, Atleti execs and coaches claimed he told the club he’s staying. The truth will come out soon enough. What’s most irksome about the ordeal is the arrogance among English-speaking media that assumes everyone given the opportunity to go to one of the EPL’s big clubs will go. This isn’t to say that they will be proven wrong about Griezmann’s exit, but at this moment, he either hasn’t made up his mind or just very recently did. There are compelling reasons to go, and to stay, and it’s taken time to sort through them. It hasn’t been a foregone conclusion, though it’s been covered like one.
But this is, impending Champions League Final aside, the offseason, when sports become a stone-wringing exercise and when the visceral spectacle of honest-to-god games gives way to tea leaf-reading and speculation and false prescience. It’s happening with Griezmann; it happens with many others. It is, lamentably, the way things are, but it’s worth remembering that there’s much less going on this time of year than we think there is. It’s all moving too slow for our tastes and we’re filling in the long quiet spaces of inactivity with noise.