From the outside, the striking thing was the fact that it was headline news at all. Gourcuff named in France squad. Yoann Gourcuff, heir apparent to Zinedine Zidane, darling of Bordeaux’s 2009 title-winning side, was this week selected in Laurent Blanc’s preliminary squad for Euro 2012. And it was the biggest story in town.
Anticipation of the squad announcement had centred on whether or not Gourcuff would get the call, at the end of a season in which injuries and poor form have restricted him to just 13 league appearances for Lyon, culminating in a sending-off for violent conduct against Ajaccio on Sunday. “It’s not anecdotal,” said Blanc of the red card, which Gourcuff received for an off-the-ball altercation with Ajaccio’s Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. “It proves that the boy isn’t in top form, both physically and mentally.”
Gourcuff’s inclusion in the 26-man squad therefore came as something of a surprise, but how has a player for whom such a bright future was predicted fallen so far?
The Breton midfielder was the irrepressible inspiration behind Bordeaux’s 2009 Ligue 1 title success (12 goals, eight assists) but by the end of that year he had played 53 matches for club and country. Having been afforded plenty of recovery time during his disappointing two-year spell at Milan (where he played 51 games, spread out over two seasons), his body was not conditioned for such exertion and his form faded, mirroring Bordeaux’s arresting slide down the table from first – with a nine-point lead – on New Year’s Day 2010 to sixth at the season’s end.
There was no respite, however, as he found himself pitched straight into the most tumultuous World Cup campaign in France’s history, where rumours abounded of a rift between him and Franck Ribéry and his tournament ended with a 25th-minute red card in the final group game against South Africa.
No sooner had he returned to France than he found himself the subject of transfer speculation linking him with interest from Arsenal, Lyon, and even Real Madrid. He opted to join Lyon, irking Bordeaux coach Jean Tigana by informing him of his desire to leave on the eve of an important game at Paris Saint-Germain. With the jeers of the Bordeaux fans ringing in his ears, he moved to Lyon in a €22 million transfer and signed a contract worth €366,000 a month that made him the most handsomely remunerated player in France.
The Lyon move, however, has been a disaster. He has rarely been fit and when he has played, he has looked like a player trying too hard to win the trust of his team-mates. He was also less than enthused about working with the taciturn Claude Puel, telling the regional Bordeaux newspaper Sud-Ouest in February 2011: “I’ve adapted to Claude Puel’s vision, but it’s different to mine.” At Gourcuff’s request, the line was changed to read: “But today I’ve totally adapted to the style we play at Lyon.” The offending quote had already appeared on the paper’s website though, and Gourcuff’s unease had been uncovered.
The following April, he admitted to feeling “shy” on the pitch and said he was “afraid to assume my responsibilities”. He was substituted at half-time in a 1-0 loss at PSG and, dogged by a groin injury, started just one of Lyon’s last seven games as they trundled to a disappointing third-place finish.
He reported for pre-season training last summer feeling fit and having lost weight, but was forced to undergo surgery on his left ankle in July and did not return to action until mid-October. Having missed pre-season, he had to play catch-up with his fitness and even when he was available to play, he found that Rémi Garde, Puel’s successor, preferred to field youth-team graduate Clément Grenier in his place. Gourcuff mustered only six Ligue 1 starts before his injury jinx struck again in February, in the form of an adductor problem that sidelined him for two months.
Since making his latest comeback at Toulouse on April 18, the eyes of the country’s football followers have been on him to see if he would succeed in convincing Blanc to take a gamble on a player so desperately short of form and fitness, and who has not played for his country since March last year.
“Yoann has had personal problems because of his injury but in particular, with him, people are always watching to see if he’s playing, if he’s not playing, if he’s playing well or badly, if he’s going to return to his Bordeaux level, or whatever,” said team-mate Lisandro López earlier this year. “You have to be ready and very strong mentally to be able to overcome all of that.” There have been encouraging performances – such as his goal-scoring turn in the 1-1 draw with Brest on May 6 – but on the whole, he has struggled to impose himself.
With his elegant playing style, sensitive nature and thoughtful post-match interviews, Gourcuff has long been seen as something of an outsider. “Yoann is different,” says his father, Christian, the Lorient coach. “He has a different cultural background and other intellectual interests. No-one likes difference in this game. And, what’s more, he’s naturally reserved.”
Though he possesses talent in abundance, Gourcuff also has an unfortunate habit of rubbing people up the wrong way. Carlo Ancelotti, his coach at Milan, described him as “egocentric” in his autobiography and he was virulently criticised by Paolo Maldini, who said he failed to succeed at San Siro because he did not make the necessary effort to integrate himself into the squad.
Prior to the start of the World Cup, L’Équipe claimed that Gourcuff had lost the faith of France’s senior players, who were said to have called on Raymond Domenech to give his place in the starting XI to Abou Diaby. The paper recently reported that, having been made aware of their feelings, Gourcuff convened a meeting with captain Patrice Evra, vice-captain Ribéry and former captain Thierry Henry, in which he asked for their support on the pitch, only for the trio to make a beeline for Domenech’s hotel room to tell the coach that there was no place in the squad for “une pleureuse” (a cry-baby).
For all his recent struggles, Gourcuff remains one of only two true playmakers at Blanc’s disposal (Sochaux’s Marvin Martin is the other). Blanc admitted as much on Tuesday when he unveiled his squad, saying: “During his long absence, no-one has imposed themselves in his area of the pitch.” Blanc also batted away suggestions that Gourcuff’s inclusion would threaten the harmony in the squad, as it allegedly had in 2010, telling reporters: “Don’t make him out to be a wolf, because he isn’t one.”
Given how rarely he has played this season, Gourcuff’s very presence in the squad represents an achievement in itself, although it clearly owes much to the success he enjoyed under Blanc at Bordeaux. What he appears to need is some time out of the spotlight to find his way again on the pitch, but a successful Euro 2012 might give him the opportunity to jump-start a career that has been flatlining for the past two and a half years.