His father was a player who never quite made it – and his coach when he started out. Yoann Gourcuff has been anointed the new Zinedine Zidane. And his 24th birthday is on the day of the World Cup final. No pressure, son.
France won't want Gourcuff to be shy at the World Cup
In January 2009, French sports newspaper L'Equipe captioned a photo of Yoann Gourcuff on its front page very simply : "Le successeur."
There was no need to specify to whom. After Zinedine Zidane exited the French national team stage with a headbutt, then a head bowed, in the 2006 World Cup final, there has been a gaping hole in France's midfield, and in French fans' hearts. The man L'Equipe predicted was ready to fill it was Gourcuff, Girondins de Bordeaux's number eight.
It didn't hurt, of course, that Gourcuff played in the same chevron-emblazoned Bordeaux shirt that Zidane once wore when making his name, but the real reason for L'Equipe's boldness was the astonishing goal he scored against Paris Saint-Germain. A goal of such aching beauty, it seemed like one that only he and Zizou would have been capable of pulling off.
The ball came to him with his back to goal, with two defenders closing in. A little over one second, and four pinpoint touches, later he was one-on one with the keeper and the ball was on its way towards the far corner of the net. Maybe you had to be there.
Gourcuff started out under his father Christian at Lorient, and then Rennes, before, in 2006, making the move that looked like the big one - to AC Milan. In Italy though, he struggled and Milan sent him back to France for the 2008-09 season, to Bordeaux. It was there that he scored "that goal," made his international debut, and won the Ligue 1 Player of the Year, as Bordeaux won the double.
This past season, Gourcuff was an integral part of the team which beat Bayern Munich home and away in the Champions League group stage, but a recurring groin injury meant he missed the season's run-in, and Bordeaux slipped to sixth in Ligue 1. Good thing for France he's fit again.
Gourcuff likes having the ball at his feet, and the game ahead of him
Gourcuff's impeccable technique has marked him as something special. He has a stunning first touch, and can shift the ball between his feet in a flash to beat a defender. He is capable of long-range goals, such as his first for the French national side against Romania in qualifying for the World Cup, and his timing on runs into the area often results in devastating finishes. He takes the free-kicks, corners and penalties.
That said, Gourcuff is best used slightly deeper, in the "quarterback" position, where he can show off his understanding of the game. (He is, remember, a coach's son.) Gourcuff is rangy, some would say Cristiano-Ronaldo-shaped, and thus seemingly too long and lean for the close combat in central midfield. But that is where he's best, using his surprising strength to keep hold of the ball, spray passes and dictate play.
Laurent Blanc has treasured Gourcuff at Bordeaux and will know his worth when takes over as France coach at the end of the summer. Before then, France will be taken to the World Cup by Raymond Domenech. Usually a maker of baffling decisions, Domenech seems to have caught on, and re-worked France into a 4-3-3 with Gourcuff at its very heart. Although the Bourdeaux man grew into the French shirt during a turbulent qualifying campaign, putting a reliance on the 23-year-old remains a gamble.
But as Zidane proved when winning the final almost single-handedly in 1998, and perhaps losing it in the same way eight years later, the very, very best mark themselves out on the biggest stage, the World Cup.
Author: Thomas Sheldrick
Editor: Matt Hermann