By Robin Bairner
When Yoann Gourcuff departed Rennes to sign for AC Milan in the summer of 2006, it was to prove one of the high points of a career that has spiked and troughed regularly over the following years.
The move to San Siro had him lauded as the successor to Zinedine Zidane, but two years were spent on the fringes of the Rossoneri before a move back to France, where Laurent Blanc’s Bordeaux found the best of Gourcuff for 18 months before the playmaker slipped into another malaise that he has only recently shown signs of emerging from, despite a €22 million transfer to Olympique Lyonnais.
Somewhat controversially, the 26-year-old, who has suffered of late through injury as opposed to a lack of form, is in Didier Deschamps’ France squad to face Italy on Wednesday night. Revisiting a land in which he suffered so much anguish would seem to offer yet another opportunity for one of the modern day's great ‘yo-yo’ players to get back on top.
The expectation that Gourcuff would follow in Zidane’s footsteps was never something that father Christian, himself a much-respected coach in Ligue 1 with Lorient, foresaw. "For me, in modern day football, the playmakers are in the defensive midfield positions," he explained to Le Foot in 2005. "These positions, facing the game, serve as the first launch pad. The future lies in the role there, in the style of great midfielders such as [Fernando] Redondo."
From the start, Gourcuff Jr. was never styled to be ‘Zizou’ but he was not meant to be a marauding figure like Patrick Vieira either, with his father arguing that "technical waste" was a byproduct of too much involvement in the game. Instead, he was designed to be in the Andrea Pirlo mould.
Before Yoann had signed a professional deal with Rennes, clubs such as Arsenal, Valencia and Ajax had tried to swoop.
"We saw immediately that he was a high quality footballer, because he had it all: a sense of the collective game, natural skills, fluidity, ease, intelligence," Rennes academy director Patrick Rampillon said. "He has an extraordinary creative talent."
Gourcuff’s natural abilities have since been cast into the shadow of his overall potential, particularly since the move abroad backfired.
The youngster was considered to be a more private, withdrawn personality than many footballers, and this was to become a major problem with the Rossoneri.
Coach Carlo Ancelotti described him as a “strange lad” in his autobiography, but a more scathing critique would arrive from a former team-mate.
"Gourcuff in Milan was 100 per cent wrong"
- Paolo Maldini
"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."
Such furtive remarks set in motion a series of rumours, ranging from wild nights out to the sexuality of the young Frenchman.
Indeed, these comments seem strangely juxtaposed to the personality of the Frenchman.
Gourcuff Sr. was quick to hit back. In a deliberate fashion he compared the dressing room at Milanello to a Mafia family and said: "There is a terrible influence in the air at Milan."
Gennaro Gattuso was singled out for the rough treatment he handed the playmaker. One training-ground challenge from the notoriously robust midfielder put Gourcuff on the sidelines for two months and effectively ended his spell in Italy.
Back in France and under the guidance of Blanc, the potential of Gourcuff was uncorked. A magical goal against Toulouse was the individual highlight of a season that led to les Girondins breaking Lyon’s run of seven-successive Ligue 1 titles.
The following year the Haut-Garonne club excelled in the Champions League by reaching the quarter-finals, although news of Blanc’s departure ultimately saw their season capitulate.
Gourcuff was not untouched and his form had dipped, but the World Cup of 2010 would prove the second critical blow in his young career.
He was cast adrift by much of the France squad in South Africa, with Franck Ribery accused of bullying him for much of the trip.
YOANN GOURCUFF | ALL-TIME LEAGUE STATS
It has never been revealed why he was so isolated in the national team, though the most probable theories are the cultured nature of his personality or that he was seen as the ‘coach’s pet’ due to his professional attitude to training. National team physio Jean-Pierre Paclet even appeared in the press to suggest that Ribery’s wife, Wahiba, flirted with Gourcuff as an attempt to get back at her husband who had been embroiled in the ‘Zahia scandal’ before the competition.
What is certain is that the World Cup was a miserable experience for the burgeoning player, with a red card against South Africa in the final match completing a miserable chapter in his life.
Confidence broken and physically tired, the move to Lyon took place at the start of the following season. Results were expected immediately from the playmaker as OL looked to re-establish themselves as the kings of France, yet Gourcuff was in no position mentally or physically to play a leading role.
More criticism followed and the prolonged downturn of form was not helped by a series of troubling injuries that prevented him finding any rhythm.
Finally, after more than two years in the doldrums, Gourcuff appears to be rediscovering his touch, aided, ironically, by the fact he was cut from les Bleus squad to play at Euro 2012.
Such has been the remarkable journey his career has taken, it is impossible to judge whether the best of the Brittany-born player will ever be seen again, but if he can be harnessed, there is no doubt that there remains terrific potential.
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