Yoann Gourcuff: The new Zidane?
With a pirouette and a thunderbolt goal, a footballing star is born on the French stage. John Lichfield reports from Paris on the heir apparent to a legend
Tuesday 27 January 2009
Sometimes a single goal is all it takes to announce the arrival of a special talent. Remember David Beckham's shot from the halfway line against Wimbledon in August 1996? For several days, La Toute France – or at least everyone in France who cares about football – has been buzzing about a goal scored at the Stade Chaban Delmas in Bordeaux.
Yoann Gourcuff, a young man with the film-star looks of a Cristiano Ronaldo, the passing skills of a Cesc Fabregas and the unstoppable engine of a Roy Keane, received the ball just inside the Paris St-Germain penalty area. PSG defenders surrounded him. He pirouetted, juggled the ball from foot to foot, slaloming through four defenders, and sent a thunderous toe-poke into the net.
The goal was not crucial. Bordeaux already led 2-0 and went on to win 4-0. But the quality of the strike was enough to persuade many French football writers and opinionated former footballers that a new Messiah had arrived.
"Le successeur" screamed the head-line in the usually cautious L'Equipe. The staid Le Figaro, which gives little space to football, devoted a whole broadsheet page to "le phénonème Gourcuff".
Le successeur to whom? To the much lamented Zinedine Zidane, of course. Several names in a very talented, rising generation of young French players – Karim Benzema, Sami Nasri – have already had to suffer the "new Zidane tag", largely because they, like Zizou, are of North African origin.
Yoann Gourcuff, 21, is an exception to the rule that modern French football greats come from the poor, multi-racial suburbs or inner districts of large cities. He was brought up in a village in Brittany, the son of a former journeyman footballer, Christian Gourcuff, who is now the coach of Lorient in the French first division. (Yoann was chosen by Bretons last month as "Breton of the Year, 2008", pipping the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.)
In other ways, however, the young Gourcuff is more like Zidane than the other pretenders to the Zizou succession. He has precisely Zidane's build and height (6ft 1in). He resembles Zidane uncannily in many of his actions on the field (especially, according to his manager, Laurent Blanc, in his ability to control the ball in tight spaces, using everything from his ankles to the soles of his boots).
Like the young Zidane, Gourcuff is making a name for himself with the Girondins of Bordeaux, who lie just one point behind Lyons at the halfway point of the French Championnat. Like Zidane, he is able to play both as a withdrawn striker or an attacking midfielder. According to Christophe Dugarry, the former Bordeaux and France striker (and Zidane's best friend), Gourcuff is even more versatile than Zizou.
"Apart from the imagination of a No 8 [creative midfielder] and the talent and technique of a No 10 [withdrawn striker], he has the strength of a No 6 [defensive midfielder]," said Dugarry, now an eloquent TV pundit and summariser. He admitted that he had been so impressed by Gourcuff's goal on a freezing night in Bordeaux, that he took off his gloves to applaud more loudly.
Gourcuff has made six appearances for France in the last four months. He struck a scorching equalising goal from 30 metres against Romania in October. Although the promise of Benzema has attracted more media attention abroad, the young Lyons striker has struggled at international level. Gourcuff, playing as an attacking midfielder, has been a revelation for the otherwise underperforming Bleus.
Is he not therefore an obvious transfer target for the big clubs of Europe, and especially the big guns, and Gunners, of the Premier League, in the next close season? Yes. Arsène Wenger has already tried to sign him twice, first when he was 15 and again when he was 19.
There is, however, a huge complication. Gourcuff's registration is already owned by one of the big guns of Europe, Milan. He left Rennes, after his father was fired as manager, to try his luck in Italy in 2006. After 20 promising games in his first season in Serie A, he hardly kicked a ball last year, squeezed out by Kaka, Ronaldinho, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf.
The canny Blanc, a revelation as a debutant coach at Bordeaux in 2007-08, signed Gourcuff on loan at the start of this season. Blanc, the ex-Marseilles, Barcelona, Internazionale, Manchester United and France central defender, has rebuilt an already successful team around Gourcuff. After a slow start, Bordeaux are emerging as a real threat to the tedious hegemony of Lyons who have won the last seven titles in a row.
Does the emergence of Gourcuff explain why Milan considered the idea of allowing Kaka to go to Manchester City? Maybe. But there is a further huge complication. Milan did not just allow Gourcuff to leave on loan, they gave Bordeaux a firm option to sign him at the end of the season for €15m (£14.1m). This is a huge fee for any French club, but peanuts compared to what the Girondins might expect to recoup on a subsequent transfer.
Gourcuff has, himself, hinted that he would like to sign for Bordeaux and play there again next season, so long as they qualify for the Champions League. Adriano Galliani, the vice-president of Milan, reminded everyone – after "that goal" – that Gourcuff is Milanese property. Sort of.
"We realised before other clubs what a great player he is. We discovered him, like we discovered Kaka and Pato [Milan's new Brazilian star]," Mr Galliani said. "We are crossing our fingers that Bordeaux will not take up their option on him. He will either play for Bordeaux next season, or at Milan."
But why would Bordeaux give up their rights to such a bargain? They will surely scrape together the €15m in the knowledge that they can sell Gourcuff for far more in the next January transfer window or in the 2010 close season.
In truth, the wrangling is likely to start long before then. Gourcuff has developed a little more slowly than Benzema and Nasri but he has the talent, and the looks, to emerge as the most talked about star of a sparkling generation of early-twentysomething French footballers.
Dugarry says that he still has to show he has the character and guts to perform for 16 years as Zidane did, not just six months.
On the other hand... "That goal was no accident," Dugarry said. "It showed there was something magical about him. I felt ill when Zidane retired. Watching Gourcuff has cured me. When I see players like him, I feel like a small boy again."
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