Yoann Gourcuff is France’s soccer enigma. On his day Gourcuff is a mesmerizing presence who makes the game of soccer look ridiculously easy.
Elegant on the ball, creative with an uncanny ability to dictate the pace of a soccer match the soon to be ex-Olympique Lyonnais star (whose departure was confirmed by the club’s owner Jean-Michel Aulas) delighted the masses at the Stade de Gerland with moments of sumptuous skill and made telling contributions in big matches.
It was Gourcuff’s goal against Marcelo Bielsa’s Marseille last October that brought an end to OM’s eight-game winning streak and it was a strike to savour. It also proved to be the last time he found the back of the net for Lyon.
Unfortunately for Gourcuff moments of such brilliance were too often sandwiched by periods of injury and controversy.
Lyon’s title ambitions suffered arguably a fatal blow when they lost to Nice in March. If ever a moment encapsulated the feeling of disappointment and despair it was Gourcuff’s reaction to an injury he sustained at the beginning of the second half. After striking a shot high and wide the man who was once seen as the heir to Zidane shook his head, realized his game was up and trudged towards the player’s tunnel without waiting to be substituted. As he disappeared from sight one couldn’t help feel that the Ligue 1 championship had gone with him.
Lyon manager Hubert Fournier couldn’t quite believe what he was witnessing and it took him a few moments to shake off the momentary shock to bring on Mohamed Yattara.
The match unfortunately, but perhaps fittingly was Gourcuff’s final appearance for Lyon. So much promise, so much frustration.
How could someone so gifted seemingly waste away his talent? Gourcuff’s attitude was questioned by AC Milan legend Paolo Maldini during the Frenchman’s ill-fated stint in Italy for the Rossoneri.
“Gourcuff in Milan was wrong 100%. His problem here 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 tell. But he knows what he did”.
“When he came into the game, he did not give himself fully. Less talented players have earned the respect of Milan because they gave everything. Him, he did not. And he knows it. After a while he became foreign to the group.”
A foreigner to the group. If a statement could sum up Gourcuff that would be it. A loner who could never quite fit in.
The most striking example of this was during France’s ill-fated 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa. Raymond Domenech, highlighted revealed in his book Tout Seul (All Alone) the contempt in which Franck Ribéry held Gourcuff in:
“Ribéry doesn’t like Gourcuff, that’s for sure. Before the Uruguay match, I told Gourcuff: ‘You have the keys to the match, it’s down to you’. The worst thing was Franck Ribéry’s look. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but in his eyes I saw hatred, contempt or jealousy.”
Amazingly, there were rumours that Ribéry’s jealousy was fuelled by his wife’s apparent ‘admiration’ of Gourcuff.
Moreover it appeared that Gourcuff’s introverted nature, childhood and well to do background was held against him and contributed to the rift between him and his teammates.
On the pitch Gourcuff’s 2010 World Cup in South Africa ended in disgrace as he was sent off after 25 minutes against the hosts in France’s final group match.
French soccer expert Julien Laurens painted Gourcuff as a football loving introvert. A man who could provide genuinely thoughtful insights about the game but too shy to embrace limelight and celebrity that shone on the brightest talents.
Laurens’ article described a player who just wanted to play the game and nothing else. Gourcuff was not interested in the glitzier side of things, the corporate aspects of the game nor was he comfortable engaging with the media. The distractions for some reason or another conspired to the derail his ascent to superstardom.
All in all it details a man not just out of sync with the trappings of modern football but consciously objecting and avoiding the perceived stereotypes associated with the game. Naturally, such an attitude will see one marked out as an ‘outsider’.
His career at Lyon has been blighted with injury problems and that in turn has affected his confidence. Alexandre Marles, Lyon’s performance director, said as much when discussing Gourcuff’s injury problems. A crisis of confidence and persistent injury is a nasty cocktail and is a combination that the skillful Gourcuff has not been truly able to shake off.
Gourcuff has been linked with Arsenal in recent weeks and it may not be as ludicrous a move as it first appears. He would be part of a wealth of attacking options and maybe at this stage of his career he needs to be seen as part of a unit rather than being the main man.
Turning 29 in July, he still has a few good seasons left in him provided he steers clear of injury of course. On paper signing Gourcuff seems like a gamble worth taking. He is available on a free transfer and with Wenger’s oversight can be eased into the first team picture rather than being thrust into the limelight.
Be it at Arsenal or anywhere else Gourcuff needs to find a place he can truly call home. He hasn’t really belonged since guiding Bordeaux to the Ligue 1 title in the 2008/9 season. Then again he’s seemingly not an easy person to get to know. Falling out with Ribéry because of so called personality issues is one thing but being called out by Maldini on a professional level is quite another.
If a coach or manager can figure out the Gourcuff enigma then they will have an outstanding player on their hands but time is running out to figure out the mystery of what really makes France’s great lost talent tick.
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