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France fans want more kisses for Griezmann's boot

Football Soccer - France v Republic of Ireland - EURO 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Lyon, Lyon, France - 26/6/16 France's Antoine Griezmann celebrates with Dimitri Payet after scoring their second goal REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach Livepic
Football Soccer - France v Republic of Ireland - EURO 2016 - Round of 16 - Stade de Lyon, Lyon, France - 26/6/16France's Antoine Griezmann celebrates with Dimitri Payet after scoring their second goalREUTERS/Kai PfaffenbachLivepic

By Patrick Vignal

PARIS (Reuters) - When Dimitri Payet knelt down on the Lyon pitch to kiss Antoine Griezmann's left boot in France's 2-1 win over Ireland for a place in the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, many fans felt they were witnessing something more than just another bizarre goal celebration.

Griezmann's double strike on Sunday came as a relief for the France fans, who had been worrying that a gruelling season might have taken its toll on the 25-year-old who had started the competition with below-par performances.

The boot-kissing came after Griezmann had scored his second goal of the night to seal victory and join Gareth Bale of Wales and Alvaro Morata of Spain at the top of the tournament's scorers' table with three goals.

The supporters will hope that the gesture will become the equivalent of the head-kissing ritual between defender Laurent Blanc and goalkeeper Fabien Barthez that provided some of the most iconic moments in France's 1998 World Cup triumph on home soil.

A tactical switch at halftime, with coach Didier Deschamps moving Griezmann closer to Olivier Giroud up front, made all the difference and Griezmann scored France's goals in quick succession around the hour.

"We told ourselves we had to move our arses, that we were the France team and a defeat would make us a laughing stock," Griezmann said in a blunt statement.

"I'm not the saviour, it was a team effort", he added, knowing that the fans will want more of the same from him when France face Iceland in Paris on Sunday for a place in the semi-finals.

"Griezmann is on fire", read a headline in French sports daily L'Equipe the day after the victory over Ireland, in a double reference to the Northern Ireland fans' song about their own Will Grigg and another one, about Griezmann himself.

"Griezmann is the man, yes he can," goes the latter, by French band The Concept.

SIMEONE PRAISE

The Atletico Madrid forward could be excused for feeling tired when the tournament started, having scored 22 goals in 38 games this season for his club, who went all the way to the Champions League final.

His performances led Atletico coach Diego Simeone to say he felt his disciplined, hard-working striker was one of the top three players in the world.

Griezmann, who was still a teenager when he moved to Spanish side Real Sociedad before joining Atletico in 2014, was relatively unknown in France for years and did not win his first cap until March 2014, when coach Didier Deschamps called him up for a 2-0 friendly win against the Netherlands.

Thirty more caps and 10 goals later, his relatively frail body and boyish looks have become familiar and the fans were quick to adopt "Grizou", as they affectionately call him.

They felt for him after hearing that his sister, Maud, was at the rock concert at the Bataclan hall when 90 people were killed in the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris. She escaped unhurt.

Griezmann was playing for France in a friendly against Germany that same night at the Stade de France, where three suicide bombers also blew themselves up outside the stadium.

He will be back in the showcase arena to face surprise package Iceland on Sunday and another kiss on his boot would be excellent news for France.

"The serious moments are now," said experienced left back Patrice Evra. "You have to be strong and take responsibility. That's exactly what Antoine is doing."

(Editing by Clare Fallon)

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