IT WAS A GOAL THAT WAS IMPOSSIBLE TO IGNORE, the kind of high-level showboatery that’s worth the price of admission alone. On a misty January evening inside the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux, Yoann Gourcuff danced his way into the headlines.
L’Équipe anointed him ‘Le Successeur’, the prestigious publication daring to mention the 21-year-old in the same breath as the immortal Zinedine Zidane. Several of France’s top football columnists and commentators, even those more cautiously optimistic, believed that Gourcuff was the phenomenon French football needed, an exceptionally blessed artist to fill the void left by Zizou.
Christophe Dugarry felt something awaken inside him. “That goal was no accident,” he said. “It showed there was something magical about him. I felt ill when Zidane retired. Watching Gourcuff has cured me. When I see players like him, I feel like a small boy again.”
Dugarry was over-excited, perhaps, but it was no ordinary goal. Receiving Mathieu Chalmé’s pass on the edge of the area, Gourcuff left the Paris Saint-Germain defenders in the fog. On the turn, he pirouetted smoothly to deceive Sylvain Armand, shifted the ball from his right foot to his left in a flash to fool Sammy Traoré and dispatched a deadly toe-poke into the corner beyond Mickaël Landreau.
The sense of excitement inside the stadium was palpable. It was one of those moments that sends shivers down the spine. It’s a perilous task using YouTube in retrospect as they are clipped, edited and presented in such a way as to deify the central protagonist. And while the 69-second clip of Gourcuff’s goal against PSG is designed to exclusively capture his ingenuity, it certainly leaves an impression.
Sometimes you can pinpoint the moment when those watching felt as though they were witnessing something special. As Gourcuff weaved his way through the despairing outstretched legs of the defenders, just as he set himself to shoot, the co-commentator let out an audible “awww” just as Gourcuff placed an unerring finishing touch on his masterpiece by sending the ball into the corner of the net before wheeling away in celebration, cheekily wagging a Pirès-like finger towards the fans.
Had he planned it? Had he dreamt about it the night before? No, not even the most visionary, prescient footballing mind can predict the nuances in Gourcuff’s movement, the exhilarating turn of pace and the manner in which he dismissed the ball into the net. “I can’t really explain how I did it,” Gourcuff said when interviewed after the game. “I just tried to get free and didn’t hesitate to shoot. It was pure instinct.”
Gourcuff was speaking freely, about as freely as his movements on the pitch that night. He spoke from the heart, and we know he spoke from the heart because, sometimes, the purest football comes from instinct.
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Zidane, of course, would have entertained thoughts of scoring in the Champions League final in 2002 prior to strutting into Hampden Park that night, but it’s foolish to believe that he had carefully concocted a strategy to swing his left leg so majestically towards the ball. It just happened.
This natural, utterly unteachable instinct helped inform the comparisons between Gourcuff and Zidane, but sadly they do not run much deeper. Whereas Zidane’s exalted status in the French footballing community is untouchable, Gourcuff will be remembered as this generation’s wayward soul, a player who had the ability to stir memories of Zizou’s magic but lacking the application and appetite to make it happen with regularity. Zidane’s name is synonymous with greatness, while Gourcuff’s is inextricably bound to inconsistency.
By the time he had scored that beautiful goal against PSG, Gourcuff was a well-discussed subject in European football. He emerged as one of France’s most exciting attacking talents in 2006, before being snapped up by AC Milan. While the idea of one of France’s great new talents joining a European giant like the Rossoneri was undoubtedly exciting, observations that the youngster would find it tough going in Italy were soon proven correct.
It might have mirrored Zidane’s move to Juventus from Bordeaux in 1996, but Gourcuff caved under the expectations and failed to shine among a lavishly-talented Milan midfield which boasted Kaká – the world’s best player at the time – Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf.
There have been conflicting reports over Gourcuff’s inability to gel with his teammates at the San Siro, but there is one strand of the story that is incontrovertible: Gourcuff and Milan were a bad fit.
Arriving at a tender age and with a reputation as a rising star, some reputable sources have claimed that Gourcuff’s unruly behaviour was pivotal to his downfall in Italy. One of those reputable sources happens to be Paolo Maldini, who spectacularly divulged his opinion on Gourcuff during an interview with L’Équipe in 2010.
“Gourcuff in Milan was 100 percent wrong,” Maldini said. “His problem was his behaviour. He did not show an intelligent way to manage himself. When he played here, he did not want to make himself available to the squad. He did not start studying Italian immediately. He did not work. He was not always on time. It happened a lot. [There are] things he cannot say. But he knows what he did.”
‘He knows what he did.’ Such a remark, from a player of indisputable clout and seniority at Milan, resonates. However, the accusations of Gourcuff’s lack of professionalism didn’t quite align with the perception of him as an introverted, shy personality. It is true, though, that instead of embracing the culture at Milan, he withdrew from it.
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Jean-Louis Gasset, Laurent Blanc’s assistant at Bordeaux during Gourcuff’s period of sparkling brilliance, offered his own highly-persuasive assessment of the player. “Yoann has character, but he’s a boy who needs to speak about things and be happy, he’s passionate about football. He could talk to you for hours about it. But if he feels he doesn’t have people’s confidence and he goes into himself, he doesn’t produce anything. He needs confidence.”
With such suffocating pressure to perform at Milan, Gourcuff crumbled. He needed confidence at the San Siro, but what he got was a sense of alienation. He returned to Bordeaux with his belief shattered, and his legs not faring much better. Carlo Ancelotti had already deemed Gourcuff surplus to requirements by the time Gennaro Gattuso crunched the midfielder in training, ensuring that his tortured final weeks at the Serie A club would be spent in rehabilitation.
However, under the tutelage of Blanc at Bordeaux, Gourcuff’s career underwent an extraordinary resurgence. Twelve goals in 37 league appearances, a mix of the important and the incredible, lifted Bordeaux to a memorable Ligue 1 title triumph. Indeed, it was Gourcuff, flourishing at the heart of a team built around him, who attracted the most munificent praise. He was the runaway recipient of the Ligue 1 Player of the Year, while he also scooped the France Football Player of the Year and Ligue 1 Goal of the Year.
Blanc was pivotal to Gourcuff’s regeneration. Ancelotti hadn’t warmed to Gourcuff at Milan – the coach called him a “strange boy” in his autobiography – but Blanc was quick to realise that, following a tumultuous two years in his career, he needed a mentor and a guide. The former centre-back obliged, putting an arm around him in a warmer method to unlock Gourcuff’s true potential. Having won the World Cup alongside Zidane in 1998, Blanc knew how to spot a technically gifted player.
Having identified Gourcuff as a key piece in the Bordeaux puzzle, Blanc set about building the team around him. Players like Alou Diarra, Fernando and Wendel were robust, physical and disciplined, presenting Gourcuff with the opportunity to express himself high up the pitch – and he did not disappoint.
Gourcuff was undoubtedly the chief creative force as Bordeaux romped to the title. Amid a team packed with brawn, his invention and finesse shone through. His goal in the 3-2 win over Le Mans, in the third-last game of the season, was his sixth in five league games, highlighting how he shaped Bordeaux’s destiny that season as they brought to an end Lyon’s seven-year reign at the summit of French football.
With goals like the one against PSG, or the stunning individual effort against Toulouse when his Cruyff turn and finish made the Dutch master himself look like a double decker bus, it felt like he had come of age. After the despair of Milan, Gourcuff had captured the ecstasy at Bordeaux in a transformative season that put him on the precipice of greatness.
However, greatness continued to elude him. In his second season at Bordeaux, Gourcuff struggled with injuries and a dip in form. Then, at the 2010 World Cup, when he was tipped to lead Les Bleus’ exciting new generation, Gourcuff suffered disappointment and indignation when he was sent off against South Africa. It was a spineless, whimpering performance with which to exit the World Cup and bring the curtain down on Raymond Domenech’s notoriously chaotic spell in charge, and Gourcuff was one of several players castigated by the French media.
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It didn’t help, either, that Gourcuff had been marginalised by senior players during the tournament, namely Franck Ribéry and Nicolas Anelka. Indeed, the mercurial misfit’s rift with his peers triggered dramatic upheaval within the France camp, obliterating any sense of harmony. Gourcuff, an intelligent, polite and well-educated member of the squad, stood out among teammates who grew up in less salubrious conditions. Ribéry came from a council estate in Boulogne-sur-Mer, while Thierry Henry, William Gallas and Anelka all grew up on the toughened outskirts of Paris.
There was clear resentment among Gourcuff’s teammates. He was hailed as Zidane’s successor in the build-up to the tournament, inciting jealousy and contempt. Domenech initially viewed Gourcuff as central to his side’s chances in 2010, but his plan was met with resistance by Anelka and Ribéry, who refused to pass to the playmaker in the opening game against Uruguay.
There were calls for Anelka and Ribéry to be dropped; instead, Gourcuff was. Then, Anelka was expelled from the squad and sent home for refusing to apologise for an astonishing, expletive-filled attack on Domenech at half-time during the 2-0 defeat to Mexico. The farce descended towards revolt when the players refused to train in a show of solidarity for Anelka. And there was Gourcuff, somewhere in the eye of the storm, left to contemplate what role he had played, if any, in his country’s embarrassing capitulation.
It would be fair to say, then, that he spent a portion of that summer with a tortured mind, as his club career continued apace. He moved from Bordeaux to Lyon and arrived in Décines-Charpieu to much fanfare. However, while it promised to be the next step in his exciting career in club football, it proved to be a false dawn. Gourcuff’s time at Lyon was ravaged by injury and erratic form. There were times when he produced moments of genius, harkening back to those halcyon Bordeaux days, but they were scattered and not decisive.
Like at Milan and for the national team, Gourcuff’s popularity became an issue. Lyon captain Maxime Gonalons openly criticised him for reportedly expressing reluctance to play unless he was 100 percent fit. It didn’t bode well with his teammates, who increasingly viewed him as a precious prima donna. By the time Gourcuff left the Stade Gerland in 2015, he had missed 90 games through injury.
He returned to his first club Rennes, who are coached by his father Christian. At 31, it’s unlikely that we will see the Gourcuff of Bordeaux again, however, as he never possessed the psychological make-up to succeed at an elite level for a prolonged period, it could be argued that we never truly saw the best of Gourcuff.
There was a thrilling surge to prominence at Bordeaux, yes, and sporadic flashes of brilliance before and after, but we’re left to wonder how he could have lit up Milan alongside Kaká, or inspired France to World Cup glory, had the circumstances been right.
Ultimately, Gourcuff’s is a name likely to attract winces from commentators and pundits. He belongs to France’s charmed generation of unfulfilled wunderkinds, alongside the Nasris and Ben Arfas of this world. It’s a shame, too, because they really can play some beautiful football.