It is an open secret that Manchester United want to flex their financial muscles this summer by prising Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid, but targeting the apparent heir to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi as the world’s top footballer is as much to do with his impact off the pitch as on it.
The 26-year-old would seem to be the answer to Jose Mourinho’s prayers in that he scores goals, makes them and, after three seasons working with Diego Simeone, is a player whose work-rate and team ethic makes him an ideal fit for a coach as demanding as United’s manager.
But Griezmann is a commercial manager’s dream too and United’s pursuit of the France forward is also rooted in their determination to dominate football’s marketing world at the same time as reclaiming their position as one of the game’s most successful clubs.
Reports in Spain suggest that Griezmann has a €100 million release clause written into his contract at the Vicente Calderon, but after spending a similar amount to make Paul Pogba the world’s most expensive footballer last August, it is a figure that United would not shy away from paying.
Griezmann, sources have said, is attracted by the prospect of signing for United, but the Frenchman still has reservations about such a move — primarily based around playing in the Champions League, but also more simplistic lifestyle concerns after spending the entirety of his professional career in Spain with Atletico and Real Sociedad.
If United secure a return to the Champions League this season, however, it will unlock the most formidable barrier standing in their way to signing Griezmann because the club knows that no rival can compete with the package they would be able to offer.
Mourinho’s pitch to the player will be all about becoming United’s talisman, building the team around him, making him someone who the club’s supporters will idolise as he helps restore the team to greatness.
But it is the off-the-field story which United believe will prove most compelling to Griezmann and his advisors, with sources telling ESPN FC that the player will be sold a vision of himself as football’s biggest star at the game’s biggest club, with Old Trafford offering the perfect platform from which to usurp Messi and Ronaldo as the annual front-runner in the race for the Ballon d’Or.
United have surveyed the competition in the battle to sign Griezmann and believe they hold the majority of the aces.
Barcelona, with Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez, cannot offer Griezmann the chance to play every week and become the star name. With the wage bill already close to its limits at the Camp Nou, the financial strain of signing him would also rule out the current Spanish champions.
Real Madrid would dearly love to lure Griezmann to the Santiago Bernabeu from their city rivals, especially as Atletico prepare to launch a new era at their new stadium next season, but that is a rarely walked path and the 26-year-old would also face the Ronaldo factor at Real, not to mention the presence of Gareth Bale too.
Domestically, United are confident that Manchester City have other targets, such as Alexis Sanchez, to focus on, with Chelsea also keen to sign the unsettled Arsenal forward.
But even if City and Chelsea shift their sights to compete with United for Griezmann, it is United’s global appeal that senior figures believe will give them the trump card in any fight for a player.
United saw off interest from Real to sign Pogba from Juventus last summer, both from a financial perspective and also by laying out their blueprint to make the French midfielder one of the most recognisable brands in sport.
Richard Arnold, United’s managing director, once claimed the club’s squad was made of “25 George Clooneys” due to the sheer reach of the United brand.
“Our games are shown in 1.1 billion homes across the globe and you think ‘which film does that 60 times a year?” Arnold said in 2012. “Be it George Clooney or Brad Pitt, what is there where that is shown? There just isn’t anything like it.”
Aon, United’s shirt sponsor between 2010-2014, claimed that traffic on the company’s website increased by up to 500 percent on United matchdays, while on the day Radamel Falcao’s loan transfer from AS Monaco was confirmed in August 2014, Google recorded a 909 percent increase in searches for the player compared to the day he moved to Monaco from Atletico 12 months earlier.
United believe they can take players above and beyond any of their rivals when it comes to brand recognition, with the likes of Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham often cited as examples.
Griezmann is already rapidly emerging as one of football’s most eye-catching poster boys and United believe that, riding the wave together, they can hit the jackpot both on the pitch and off it.
United need a new hero on the pitch, a new star name to don the No. 7 shirt of George Best, Ronaldo, Beckham and Eric Cantona, but they also want to be the club which employs Ballon d’Or winners too. They know they have the machine in place off the pitch to deliver that, but it might need the signing of Griezmann to ensure that Mourinho is able to make it happen on the pitch too.
That, as United have discovered this season, will be the difficult part.
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