Although still only 32 years of age, the once-promising career of one-time French starlet seems all but over. Tipped to reach the very heights of European football on the back of a big-money move to Milan in 2006 when barely out of his teens, Gourcuff appeared to be on the cusp of a top-notch career. To say that Gourcuff’s career has not subsequently panned out the way it was anticipated, would be a gross understatement.
Born in Ploemeur, France, in 1986, Gourcuff is the son of Christian Gourcuff, who enjoyed a reasonable career as a player in the French leagues and has since spent more than 35 years in management in France and beyond.
Yoann signed for Rennes as a boy at the same time his father was the manager of the club, and when Gourcuff Senior moved to Rennes, he followed suit and played for the club’s youth and reserve sides.
In 2004, his senior breakthrough came and he spent the next two seasons flitting between the club’s first team and reserves under the management of Laszlo Boloni, before finally nailing down a starting spot for the 2005-06 season.
This season saw Gourcuff earn a reputation as a creative attacking midfielder. Able to both set up and score goals, Gourcuff was a sought after commodity and was linked with a number of clubs, with Arsenal and Ajax being amongst them.
It was to Italy and Milan he was headed, however, the subject of a transfer fee of €4.58 million. By this time he had been capped by his country at U-17, U-18, U19 and U-21 level and appeared for France in the 2006 UEFA U-21 European Championships.
A lot was expected of Gourcuff at the San Siro – perhaps too much. Joining a side that was at, or very near to, the peak of European football some people wondered if the move hadn’t perhaps come a little early for the young Frenchman.
It seems a mixture of culture shock and certain other players not taking to him led to a troubled time. There were allegations in some quarters that Gourcuff was surly and withdrawn, and that he stubbornly refused to attempt to learn for Italian, for instance. Whilst these claims were refuted by Gourcuff’s father, both Carlo Ancelotti and Paolo Maldini publicly questioned his attitude.
Although he obtained a European Champions League medal in 2007, his two-year sojourn at the San Siro was largely an unhappy one and he returned to France and to Bordeaux, whom he joined on loan for the 2008-09 season.
Initially, the move back home was a perfect fit for Gourcuff who rediscovered his early-career form in a Bordeaux team that played to his strengths. Not tasked with too much tracking back, Gourcuff played a more forward role and the 2008-09 season was a success for both club and player.
The Ligue 1 title was secured by Bordeaux, as was the Coupe de France (the French equivalent of the League Cup), that season and such was Gourcuff’s form that Milan made overtures to recall him to the San Siro. Gourcuff, however, was adamant that he wished to stay with Bordeaux and with the club invoking the buyout clause, Gourcuff’s transfer was made permanent.
The following season was not as successful for either player or club, as injuries took their toll and just three games into the 2010-11 season, Gourcuff was on the move again; this time with a move to French rivals, Lyon.
A poor start to his time at Lyon led to a drop in confidence and when injury again intervened, this time by way of a debilitating ankle injury, Gourcuff was forced to sit out almost the entirety of the 2011-12 season. In five seasons at Lyon, Gourcuff reproduced nothing like his Rennes or Bordeaux form and was selected for less than a hundred games in that time.
A rather underwhelming return to Rennes followed, with less than fifty league appearances in three seasons before a last-chance move to Dijon in the summer of 2018 was secured due to Gourcuff being a free agent.
In January 2019, Gourcuff’s contract was cancelled after having made only eight appearances all season.
While Gourcuff’s club career was nose-diving, naturally so too was his international status. Making his full international bow in 2008 shortly after signing for Bordeaux on loan, Gourcuff established himself in the Les Bleus side and appeared in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. His performances were mixed, though, and he had a famous falling out with Franck Ribery and Nicolas Anelka, whom he accused of deliberately not passing to him.
Dropped from the French national side as his club form started to deteriorate, the 2010 World Cup would be the only major tournament that Gourcuff would appear in. In total, he played thirty-one times for his country, scoring just four times.
So why did Gourcuff’s career sour so badly after such a promising start? It is undeniable that injuries played a significant part in the stop-start nature of his progress, but questions also have to be asked regarding his mentality and attitude.
A recurring theme throughout his career has been the accusation that Gourcuff has remained stubborn, aloof, unwilling to take on board criticism and advice, and has generally displayed a less than stellar approach to being a professional.
Perhaps, though, it is simply a case that Gourcuff found himself unable to live up to the high expectations placed upon him.