When Yoann Gourcuff made his France debut in 2008, he was likened to the legendary Zinedine Zidane. It couldn’t last, but for a while he cured broken hearts.
How do you replace a player like Zinedine Zidane? It was a question that dominated French football in the aftermath of the 2006 World Cup, Zidane’s grizzly and unforgettable farewell to the sport.
For 12 years, the playmaker had controlled the French midfield, introducing the world to masterly pirouettes, sublime passing and goals when they mattered most.
After the 2006 World Cup, there was a conspicuous absence at the heart of the French team.
Early front-runners for replacing Zidane were… well… nobody. Even at the age of 34, Zidane had been peerless; midfield team-mates like Claude Makélélé, Patrick Vieira and Alou Diarra were there to act as foils, not equals.
Any optimism was dashed, in brutal fashion, at Euro 2008. There, the lack of a suitable heir was demonstrated in clearest detail as a midfield of Makélélé and Jérémy Toulalan helped France to a solitary point and a last-place finish in their group.
In three painful matches, Les Bleus plundered just one goal.
Was this the future of French football? Drawing to Romania and falling well short of peers like Italy and the Netherlands? The Zidane-free future looked bleak.
But then, out of nowhere, came Yoann Gourcuff. The second coming. A new Zidane, just as handsome as the former Real Madrid galáctico but with more hair. Le successeur.
Here was a creative attacking midfielder who seemingly had all the tools to follow the unfollowable. He could pass, he could score, he could find space where there was none. He could even pirouette like the master.
Yoann Gourcuff: a footballer so committed to replacing Zidane, he even made himself the same height (6 ft 1 in) as his celebrated predecessor.
In truth, Gourcuff had been on the radar for several years — before Zidane’s retirement, even.
Between 2004 and 2006, the Brittany-born midfielder, son of former player Christian Gourcuff, had been slowly introduced to the first team at Rennes.
By the 2005-06 season, he had become a key player, contributing six goals and four assists as the club finished seventh in Ligue 1.
That success prompted a €4.5million move to A.C. Milan, where Gourcuff made 36 league appearances across two seasons.
But moving to a European giant – and even claiming a Champions League winner’s medal in his first year – did not particularly aid the Frenchman’s development.
In 2010, Milan legend Paolo Maldini explained that Gourcuff had failed to integrate in Italy, and that a poor attitude was largely to blame.
“[Gourcuff] was not intelligent in the manner of managing himself,” Maldini said. “When he played here, he did not want to make himself available to the group.”
That two-year Milan stint was followed by a return to France. But instead of coming back with tail between his legs, Gourcuff made an explosive impact back in Ligue 1.
His new club, Bordeaux, made him central to their plans, playing him in attacking midfield behind forwards Marouane Chamakh and Fernando Cavenaghi and ahead of a rock-solid defensive midfield of Alou Diarra and Fernando.
The configuration proved highly effective, and Bordeaux emerged as surprise challengers for the title.
But Gourcuff’s club form was only part of the story.
On August 11, 2008, the midfielder earned his first cap for the French senior team, coming on as a late substitute in a friendly against Sweden.
Exactly two months later, he announced his arrival in international football more definitively: with France trailing 2-1 to bogey side Romania, Gourcuff opened his international account with a 30-yard screamer, salvaging a point for Les Bleus and cementing his place in the side.
It was then that the whispers began. Had the successor really arrived?
Gourcuff maintained his form for Bordeaux, who started him in all but three league matches over the course of the campaign, and he repaid their faith with a healthy total of 12 goals and 11 assists. That contribution helped the club to its first league title in 10 years.
The midfielder’s finest moment, however, came in the middle of the season, when he scored a stunning solo goal in a 4-0 victory over PSG.
In the 70th minute, with Bordeaux leading 2-0, Gourcuff collected the ball with his back to goal, producing a Zidanesque pirouette to fool Sylvain Armand before instantly leaving Sammy Traoré for dead with a quick-footed slalom.
A cheeky poked finish into the far corner eliminated all doubts: France had its new talisman.
“That goal was no accident,” proclaimed French World Cup winner Christophe Dugarry. “I felt ill when Zidane retired; watching Gourcuff has cured me.”
When the 2010 World Cup came around, 23-year-old Gourcuff was a mainstay of the national side, having started all but two qualification games since his exploits against Romania.
But while most were confident in the midfielder’s abilities, reports of problems within the France camp were troubling.
Manager Raymond Domenech was the subject of constant criticism, with many believing he should have vacated the role after the disappointment of Euro 2008. His decision to exclude Patrick Vieira from the World Cup squad was also criticised.
When the games began, and with Gourcuff expected to provide the creative spark for attackers like Sidney Govou, Franck Ribéry and Nicolas Anelka, everything fell to pieces.
The French laboured to a 0-0 draw with 10-man Uruguay, with Gourcuff at the centre of the disappointment. Not because he had been especially bad, but because Ribéry and Anelka — unfriendly with Gourcuff off the pitch — had refused to pass to their playmaker.
The scandalous lack of cohesion within the squad resulted not in discipline for Ribéry and Anelka but in Gourcuff being dropped for the second match, which France then lost 2-0 to Mexico.
Domenech’s decision to back Anelka backfired massively: after the manager criticised his striker at half-time, Anelka responded by calling Domenech “a dirty son of a whore” and was promptly sent home.
That decision caused a player revolt that was only settled after emergency negotiations.
With Anelka out of the picture, Gourcuff was reinstated for the final group match against hosts South Africa.
His contribution? A red card in the 25th minute.
Following France’s World Cup humiliation, Gourcuff would collect just a handful of further caps, the last coming way back in 2013.
The scandal in South Africa didn’t prevent Lyon spending €22million on the playmaker shortly after the tournament, but subsequent seasons saw Gourcuff battle for both form and fitness, never living up to that early hype.
In 2015 he returned to Rennes, making just 49 league appearances over three seasons. Now 32, he joined Dijon over the summer, but is yet to make a start for his new club.
In a 2012 book, former coach Domenech shed some light on Gourcuff’s World Cup troubles — arguably the point at which Gourcuff’s career started going downhill.
“Ribéry doesn’t like Gourcuff, that’s for sure,” Domenech wrote. “Before the Uruguay match I told Gourcuff, ‘You have the keys to the match, it’s down to you.’
“The worst thing was Ribéry’s look. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but in his eyes I saw hatred, contempt or jealousy.”
Ribéry’s eyes didn’t ruin Gourcuff’s career on their own, but we will never know how the ‘next Zidane’ might have fared within a less implosive French side.