Yoann Gourcuff: Once the Successor, always the Outsider

Date published: Wednesday 6th February 2019 10:16

As Bordeaux’s Matthieu Chalmé intercepted the ball, Yoann Gourcuff drifted across the box. In those fleeting seconds between his gentle steps and the PSG defenders realising who they’d let slip through their collective fingers, he could see it all. He could see the four defenders closing in from all sides, like a gazelle holding the mutual gaze of a pack of lions. He could see his target, guarded by Mickaël Landreau over his right shoulder, and Sylvian Armand breaking into a charge over his left shoulder. A quick flick of the eyes to the left, back to the ball, then back to the left, and back to the ball. Yoann could see his path as though it was signposted in front of him. The enclosing PSG defenders, the 35,000 inside the Stade Jacques Chaban-Delmas and the millions watching around France, could see nothing.

What followed seemed to happen in slow motion, and yet instantaneously. Gourcuff took the ball mid-pirouette, controlling his six-foot frame with a ballet dancer’s precision, and left Sylvian Armand clutching at the whispers of navy smoke that he’d just tried to tackle. And then, with Sammy Traoré closing in, he shifted the ball from right to left as though it was a chess piece. The outstretched leg of Traoré was a mere afterthought – by the time he looked around, Gourcuff had slammed the ball into the far corner with the outside of his right boot. The ball’s beautiful and delicate journey, from Gourcuff to the net, took about three seconds: left, right, right, left, right…goal.

You’d be hard-pressed to find a moment that better sums up the fleeting, but beautiful, genius of Yoann Gourcuff than that goal. Bordeaux romped to an eventual 4-0 win against PSG on their way to the 2008/09 Ligue 1 and Coupe de la Ligue double, and Gourcuff was seemingly on his inevitable rise to the top. People expected him to return to his parent club, Milan, and go some way to emulating France’s greatest ever player, who moved from France to an Italian giant and with whom Gourcuff was always compared: Zinedine Zidane.

They both had an elegance and guile about their play that contrasted against their six-foot frames and tenacity on the ball. His debut goal for France, a 30-yard howitzer against Romania, helped solidify L’Équipe’s decision to name him ‘Le Successeur’. Former France international Christophe Duggary mused: “I felt ill when Zidane retired. Watching Gourcuff has cured me.” But, for all his promise and flashes of brilliance, Gourcuff will be remembered as France’s lost son, rather than successor to the King.

 

Born in Brittany to a sports-obsessed family, Gourcuff advanced through the youth ranks at Lorient, before following his father Christian to Rennes when he was appointed manager. After an impressive string of performances for the first team over gradual seasons, he transferred to Milan for €4.5million in June 2006.

But, under the glaring lights of the San Siro, and the wider media, Gourcuff struggled to reach the heights his immense talents probably deserved. He only made 36 appearances across two seasons; perhaps understandably, his game time was limited by the immense competition he faced in that Milan midfield: Kaká, Clarence Seedorf, Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo. But, according to Milan captain Paolo Maldini, Gourcuff did not help himself off the pitch.

Maldini argued that Gourcuff did not immerse himself in the culture of the team, or country as a whole. He was reportedly late for training, slow to learn Italian and refused to integrate fully in their side. But perhaps these missteps were in part due to Gourcuff’s character. His delicate grace on the ball reflected his personality; he was an introverted, shy young man who struggled to shoulder the immense burden of expectation that had been laid on his shoulders. Where he needed support and confidence at Milan, he was met with suffocating expectation.

He was loaned to Bordeaux and, perhaps under a spotlight that didn’t shine so bright, Gourcuff rediscovered his mesmeric, almost poetic, best. It was almost as though the highlight clips from that double-winning Bordeaux side were part of an artisan film, with Gourcuff as the lead –  the games seen through his eyes. Deft flicks and no-look touches were matched with power and grit, which made him the fulcrum of that side. Here, with each pirouette, began the comparisons to Zidane.

His form for Bordeaux, and obscene debut international goal against Romania, eventually led to his selection for France’s 2010 World Cup squad. Here, in scenes that mirrored those at the San Siro, Gourcuff again found himself estranged on the fringes. In their first group game, a stuttering 0-0 draw with Uruguay, Gourcuff was seemingly anonymous. Franck Ribéry and Nicholas Anelka refused to pass him the ball, reportedly because they disliked the young Breton. Throughout the tournament, tensions between them off the pitch continued to rise.

Eventually they boiled over, with Ribery allegedly ripping apart a book Gourcuff was reading on a flight. The two were seemingly worlds apart – Ribery, like a huge number of players in the French squad, was from a poor, lowly background, while Gourcuff enjoyed a fairly well-off childhood. He was a junior tennis champion before pursuing a football career, and this polished, extremely handsome boy was at odds with the rough and fiery senior players he shared a dressing room with.

Gourcuff was dropped for their second World Cup match but, after a well-reported collapse in squad cohesion, Anelka was expelled from the squad and Gourcuff started in their final group game. His contribution was brief, and not unlike Zidane’s final appearance: his flying elbow, while challenging for a throw-in, got him sent off after 26 minutes. A brief moment of wild violence from a usually restrained and elegant individual; perhaps indeed ‘Le Successeur’.

Gourcuff drifted from Bordeaux to Lyon, in a €22m move that is still a record between French clubs. Though there were still flashes of beautiful brilliance at Lyon, swathes of injuries have never released their grip on him since. The initial Lyon side he joined was full of young, exciting talent: Hugo Lloris, Miralem Pjanić, Ederson, Michel Bastos and Bafétimbi Gomis amongst others. However, their push for a Champions League never materialised, and these high-earning stars were replaced with youth academy products. A new-look Lyon pushed PSG close in 2014/15 but Gourcuff, one of only a handful of players not from the Lyon youth system, remained a sparse and irregular contributor.

And, after injuries kept him on the sidelines at his new club Dijon, he was released in January 2019. Like so many mercurial talents before him, his talents were best expressed when confidence was instilled in him by those around him. After difficulties in Milan, in the national team, and a nasty succession of injuries, this confidence seems to have utterly evaporated. For a brief period, his grace and ingenuity on the ball looked to send him to the top of Europe’s elite but, sadly, it was not to be.

On the Mailbag, the most recent episode of the On The Continent podcast, Andy Brassell remembers Gourcuff’s unfortunate journey: “He was such a beautiful footballer. The incredible thing about Gourcuff, and the real shame that he never got where he wanted to go, is that he looked like he could become one of the best players in the world.”

Perhaps his majestic, but fleeting, brilliance is why Gourcuff is so fondly remembered by European football fans – it was almost as if a ballet dancer realised he could play football. And he’ll forever have that goal against PSG: drift, spin, slalom, bang.

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