Filling the void: the Yoann Gourcuff story (pt II)

Filling the void: the Yoann Gourcuff story (pt II)

Filling the void: the Yoann Gourcuff story (pt II)


By Matthew Richards

Things have changed since part one of this story appeared last week, and Yoann Gourcuff has been left out of the French squad travelling to Poland and Ukraine. Powering on regardless, Matt Richards reviews Gourcuff’s international career, with a focus on the recent omission, and his disappointing time at Lyon.

In his second season at the Stade Chaban Delmas, Gourcuff merely flirted with the heights he had previously reached. Bordeaux did, admittedly, enjoy a record win-streak early in the season, and reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League only to lose out to Olympique Lyonnais, but finished the season in sixth place; failing to qualify for European competition altogether. Three matches into the next season, L’Equipe reported that Gourcuff had informed the club of his desire to join Lyon. For his final match with Bordeaux, he came on as a substitute, assisting the game-winning goal in injury-time. Then he was gone.

In the previous months, his mind was elsewhere. So it should have been. Raymond Domenech called upon Gourcuff in France’s World Cup qualifying campaign, and he made a number of important contributions as Les Bleus finished second in their group, notably a 30-yard wonder strike to equalise against Romania. Gourcuff, when he was played, found himself filling the void left by Zinedine Zidane, though Samir Nasri and Mathieu Valbuena were capable of playing the same role. He started in both Dublin and Paris as France secured their place in South Africa in controversial circumstances, and the young midfielder was all but certain of inclusion in the final squad.

“We did [struggle in qualification], but I think that’s actually a good thing,” Gourcuff prophetically said ahead of the World Cup. “The adversity and criticism we received means that we are going to be even more together as a team. We went through some difficult times but we hope that’s in the past.”

In South Africa, French football endured its most public humiliation. Indeed, even before the squad had arrived at the tournament, there was trouble brewing. Gourcuff’s failure to fully integrate himself into the squad caused massive rifts. Experienced players, who might have known better than to resort to infighting, seemingly lost faith in the player, and reminded him of times at the San Siro; opting to freeze him out. Speaking retrospectively, Gourcuff’s father noted that divisions were clear: “I know enough to see that when he was on the ground, something was wrong. Football is a collective game; we need to manage the collective interest and personalities.”

A reflection of widespread immaturity amongst representatives of a nation, the situation with Gourcuff also highlighted the individual’s constant difficulties of finding a place for himself in the team. It is said that a playmaker’s role is finely balanced between existing as a gift and a curse – in Gourcuff’s case, nothing could be more accurate. Phenomenally talented, Gourcuff is well aware of himself. He might have quoted Cristiano Ronaldo – “people hate me because I’m rich, handsome and good at football” – but he appears to have more of an appreciation for tact. Playmakers, too, are often the most scrutinised of all players on the football field. Charged with the responsibility of linking play, if they do not create or score, they are criticised of being lazy, or arrogant. It is not a completely unfair stereotype, though many exceptions exist.

A typically reserved character, Gourcuff found himself amongst some of the biggest egos in the game. Nicolas Anelka infamously clashed with his coach, and Gourcuff increasingly found himself a scapegoat for internal problems as rumours emerged that he and Franck Ribéry, in particular, took issue with one another. As the image of French football imploded, Gourcuff was left to take the blame. It wasn’t difficult for the media to take this approach, either – Gourcuff made it easy. Leading with his arm as he took to the air to recover the ball against South Africa, his elbow connected with an opponent’s cheek, and he was shown a red card. Gourcuff retreated into the tunnel, and the men left on the field played out the farce.

France was incensed. Though the players and more reactionary media descended on Gourcuff, others knew better. “After the sending-off they were overwhelmed and outclassed,” wrote Le Figaro. “Drifting, they almost drowned. They managed to avoid a severe spanking but the upshot was the same as if they had: they lost without ever suggesting they could rebel against defeat or save their honour. The fact that Raymond Doemench refused to shake the hand of Carlos Alberto Parreira is too serious to ignore. It is an inexcusable lack of respect. How can he ask players to be dignified and behave in exemplary fashion when he acts like this? Ridiculous.”

Gourcuff was, to a point, sold down the river by his teammates. Fingers were pointed in every direction, though nobody was prepared to step forward. They couldn’t all be right, but they could all be wrong. Disgraced, France returned home, and the players went their separate ways; either to the cameras gathered at the airport, or back to their clubs. Gourcuff chose the latter. Well, sort of.

He left Bordeaux for Lyon three matches into the league season, for a mammoth €22m and €366,000 a month. Though habitually an introvert, Gourcuff was forced into the spotlight. He had gone from being a promising young player to a fully-fledged star, weighed down by the expectations of thousands. Unfortunately for Gourcuff, it was the perfect storm. A hefty transfer fee, the reputation for trouble, the playmaker image and recurring injuries mean that he has not enjoyed the greatest two years at Lyon, with the side arguably feeling the effects of his absence or loss in form. Lyon finished outside the Champions League places; with fourth place not enough given France’s UEFA coefficient (indeed, too many more poor performances from French sides in Europe could well see them lose another Champions League place to Russia). Sensationally, they were knocked out of Europe by Apoel Nicosia, however they did win the Coupe de France.

Gourcuff was called up to Laurent Blanc’s provisional Euro 2012 squad, but was cut days later after an indifferent performance as France scraped to a 3-2 win at home to Iceland. Others fell too, but it was Gourcuff’s name in the headlines. As the axe hovered above his head, the midfielder spoke calmly of the situation: “I do not pay too attention, I focus on football. It is my passion, this is where I put my energy, and I’m enjoying myself. The hope is to be on the pitch. That’s all.”

Surely this will have been enough to make him notice. This time, the call has been for Gourcuff, rather than against him. Montpellier coach Rene Girard has been one such supporter: “The team that Laurent has chosen seems to be balanced. That said I was still a little surprised by the exclusion of Gourcuff .Since he brought him in to the original 26-man squad I thought he might take him until the end. If he had not been in the 26 then I would not have been as surprised.

"The press were very critical of him [after the match against Iceland] and that’s unfortunate. The problems in that game were not solely Yoann but the collective effort of the team. At the same time a lot is expected of him. Personally I do not think that game changed anything. The dice was rolled. We must move forward now.  [But] a decision had to be made. Laurent has selected the players he think can do the job now.”

And so it is. Gourcuff will be 27 by the next World Cup, and 29 when the European Championships come to France. For a player of his quality, when the void remains, it seems impossible. Along with Marvin Martin, the choice of truly influential playmakers in France begins and ends with Gourcuff. France, very possibly, are moving away from this kind of player being the fulcrum of their side, but a central creative force still appears to be missing. Philippe Auclair noted that this French side have the potential to go all the way, or nowhere at all in the coming Euros. There will be no middle ground. Such is the unpredictability; the sheer volatility of a still shaken team, that this seems to be a fair forecast of things to come.

We are left to wonder why Gourcuff is not in Blanc’s plans. Perhaps he recognised that the egoistic tendencies of many within the camp could cause problems again – France cannot afford another continental shaming. Patrice Evra and Ribéry will play, though it is altogether possible that Blanc couldn’t trust all to get along, and sacrificed Gourcuff for the greater good. Certainly from the outside, this seems like the case; Gourcuff walks home alone, and France fly to Poland and Ukraine.

Seemingly the heir apparent to the mantle of creation in French football, Gourcuff’s genius is also his burden. He is the perfect personification of a post-Zidane French footballer, weighed down by personal struggles, and the notion that the world is against him. It is not an unfair belief.

The generational flow may have simply come full circle. Certainly France seeks success, but they are without a hero; the polar opposite to the beautiful misery endured near to 30 years ago when France first won the European Championships. Often falling at the final hurdle (1984 being an exception), they were the days when Platini would set the world ablaze to only be burnt himself, and never achieve what his brilliance deserved.

Gourcuff waits for his chance. For now, he exists as a reminder of the glorious heartache of the past. Zidane watches over; he has seen them come before. Time will tell if Gourcuff was just another pretender.

Part one of this story can be found hereMatt also writes for The Substitution.