With the European Championships on the horizon, Matthew Richards profiles the tumultuous career of Yoann Gourcuff, who was somewhat controversially called up to the most recent French squad, in part one of a look at his remarkable journey that has taken him from France to Milan, and back again.
Ever since Zidane chose to so ignominiously end his career in Berlin, French football has been left with a distinct void. Where Kopa and Platini reigned before the talismanic midfielder, there is now a long line of pretenders to the throne. Just as was the situation in Argentina for many years – though Messi appears to only be a strong World Cup away from near surpassing Maradona – there have been those chosen by the media and professed as the next in line; Henry, Ribéry and Vieira all bearing the responsibility at one point in their careers. Nothing yet, and the search continues. Welcome to Le Jeu des Trônes.
To be compared to Zinedine Zidane is both an honour and a hindrance. The similarities are plain to see: both Gourcuff and Zidane occupy the same area on the field, both burst onto the international scene with Bordeaux, both share the same on-pitch demeanour and style. “Don’t put too much pressure on the guy, and don’t ask him to be the new anybody,” said Zidane. “We can all see he’s very talented.” Here lies the drawback to the comparison. Gourcuff will never be able live up to the potential that others have decided that he has – and this is not to do his career a disservice; not many will ever equal Zidane. The pressure to live up to the mark is immense, and often insurmountable. Time will tell with Gourcuff, and his early appearances for France were promising, as were many of his performances for Bordeaux. If he’s looking to shed the comparison’s he’s often gone about it the wrong way, so good has he been on occasion.
Prior to the outbreak of the humiliating civil war at the World Cup in South Africa, Yoann Gourcuff was thought to be the man to fill the gaping chasm in the French national side. It would, for the nation as for the individual, go horribly wrong, but now Gourcuff is back, and is looking to make an impression on Europe in Poland and Ukraine. He was, for a time, the young darling of French hopes, but has fallen considerably in their estimations. We can first look to Italy in understanding Gourcuff’s remarkable journey of considerable highs, and plunging lows.
“Gourcuff in Milan was 100% wrong,” Paolo Maldini told L’Equipe in 2010. “His problem here was his behaviour. He was not intelligent in the manner of managing himself. When he played here, he did not want to make himself available to the group. He did not start to study Italian immediately”. Certainly Gourcuff is talented, but he also possesses a regrettable tendency to upset the wrong people. The captain of AC Milan; one of the greatest defenders to have played the game, is not someone to trouble.
Gourcuff arrived in Lombardy in the close season in 2006 with minimal fanfare. His €4.58m move from Stade Rennais hardly set the transfer market alight, and with Kaka entering his sublime peak, he was unlikely to feature in the first team in the immediate future. Indeed, his first year at the San Siro reflected this sentiment, as he waited until mid-September to make his league debut, though he did make a late appearance as a substitute in a Champions League third round qualifying tie against Red Star Belgrade in mid-August. The remainder of the season followed a similar pattern, with starts a rarity and substitute appearances increasingly the only way he would make it onto the field.
Gourcuff did, in fairness, make 33 appearances in total during the course of the season; scoring on the final day of Milan’s domestic campaign, and picking up a Champions League winners medal, though he did not feature in Ancelotti’s squad in Athens.
Kaka was at the peak of his abilities: top scorer in European competition, Serie A and UEFA Footballer of the Year, and most notably the Ballon d’Or winner for 2007. He and Gourcuff would play the same position in training, but there could be no complaints as to who should play in the competitive matches. A brooding, young talent, yet to be fully aware of his place in the club’s hierarchy, Gourcuff took issue with his position.
Cracks began to show at the beginning of the next season. “At Milan,” Gourcuff told France Football, “we don’t play the football I am used to. It is more fluid, slower, and more reflective”. The San Siro questioned his attitude, and not without vindication. Carlo Ancelotti, in his autobiography entitled I Prefer The Cup, described Gourcuff as a “strange lad”, who was “egocentric and a little mad”. Later, when he would transfer to Bordeaux after a successful loan spell, the Italian said that “The return of Gourcuff in the Milan jersey will not be easy, even if it is not impossible. It’s a pity, because here he was unable to express himself well, but the problem was only psychological in nature”. Italians spoke; the Frenchman stayed silent. A show of restraint or a lack of objection, Gourcuff probably found himself leaning towards the latter. He was frozen out, and sent back to France; Adriano Galliani stating that the player would be loaned out to FC Girondins de Bordeaux for the whole of the following season.
Asked whether his time at Milan was worthwhile, Gourcuff responded with a dignity that Ancelotti and Maldini failed to afford the situation. “I was very young, just 19, when I went from a small French club (Rennes) to one of the biggest clubs in the world. I had never lived abroad before so it was difficult for me to adapt in a country where I did not speak the language. I was alone and it was difficult, but I began to integrate and I learned a lot. I’m happy that I went to Milan because it helped make me the player that I am”. It is an awareness of progression, through an unfortunate situation, that footballers too often choose to neglect.
The impact of his arrival at Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux was immediate; as he inspired the club to its first Ligue 1 title in a decade. There was that goal against PSG. “[It] was no accident,” said Christophe Dugarry. “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”. Picking up the ball on the edge of the area, Gourcuff pulls a defender across him with two staggering touches, before snapping it back towards the goal to evade a second man running towards him. Rarely are nonchalant flicks hit with such purpose.
He would go on to score a second incredible strike against Toulouse, and the media took notice. Indeed, all of France did. “If Kaka or Ronaldinho had scored that, it would be shown all around the world this week,“ said Canal Plus’s commentator, invoking the same plea for recognition that sees wonder goals compared to those of Ronaldo and Messi today. “If he carries on like that,” said Ancelotti, “he’ll be coming back to Milan.”
Gourcuff was a saviour. He had scored fifteen goals, and made the same number of assists. He was awarded the UNFP Ligue 1 Player of the Year as well as a place in the Ligue 1 Team of the Year. Perhaps most satisfying was his 20th place finish in the voting for the 2009 Ballon d’Or. Leonardo replaced Ancelotti at the San Siro, and he and Galliani attempted to woo back the Frenchman – now, Kaka had left for Madrid. Bordeaux never hesitated to take up the option to buy Gourcuff: as Milan circled, club president Jean-Louis Triaud was clear. "We have an option to buy him and it’s very simple: if we sign the cheque, he’s our player.”
Gourcuff had earned the odd international call-up since France’s humiliating showing at the European Championships in 2008, but it was during a time when the French national team was in major transition. His rise since was irresistible. Predictably, Raymond Domenech came calling again as France prepared for the World Cup.
Part two of this story - focussing on Gourcuff’s international career, and turbulent times with Lyon – will appear next week. Matt also writes for The Substitution.