European Football

“Le Successeur”

The story of Yoann Gourcuff, unrealized potential, and one magical goal in Bordeaux 11 years ago…

“Exceptionnel! Exceptionnel!”

The words of Grégoire Margotton still ring in the ears of French fans.

January 11, 2009, the Stade Chaban-Delmas in Bordeaux, 23-year-old midfielder Yoann Gourcuff announced himself to the world with a goal of a lifetime.

Winning the ball back in the attacking third, Les Girondins right back Matthieu Chalmé passed the ball to Gourcuff on the edge of the 18-yard box. Gourcuff then, basically in one fluid motion, did a pirouette to avoid the oncoming tackle from PSG left back Sylvain Armand, a croqueta to get past center back Sammy Traoré, and then rifled it past the goalkeeper.

It was a goal that should have launched a world-beating career.

That season, Bordeaux won the league. Gourcuff, with 12 goals and eight assists, won UNFP Player of the Year. He was named French Player of the Year for 2009 by the magazine France Football, beating out the likes of Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Franck Ribéry, and Hugo Lloris. The next season, he guided Bordeaux to the quarterfinals of the Champions League, where they narrowly lost out to domestic title rival Lyon. He became a starter for France and was guaranteed a spot in the team for the World Cup in South Africa. He was one of the rising stars in the football world, famously earning an 85 rating with a 92 overall potential rating on EA Sports’ FIFA 10 Career Mode. Fans and media alike viewed him as the second coming of Zidane, with L’Équipe famously granting him the title “Le Successeur.”

It was a goal that should have launched a world-beating career.

But it didn’t.

In the 2009/10 season, Gourcuff suffered from minor injury setbacks, with a groin injury and resulting absence at the end of the season costing Bordeaux their chance at playing European football the next season. These injuries would be a sad precursor of what was to come, but the real issues did not begin until the World Cup.

France manager Raymond Domenech envisioned Gourcuff as a pivotal player for his team. This, along with the endless praise and hype he had received from the media, did not sit well with his teammates. Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribéry both protested Domenech’s plan, insisting on the inclusion of Florent Malouda or Thierry Henry in the starting XI instead. Personality-wise, Gourcuff stood out in comparison to his teammates. His nurtured, upper-class upbringing did not match many of his teammates’ difficult childhoods in the poorer areas of France. Gourcuff was shy and reserved as a person, retreating to himself when faced with struggle, which stood in contrast to many of the large and outgoing personalities on that team, and when faced with the ire and distrust of his teammates in South Africa, Gourcuff once again retreated.

In the first match of the tournament, against Uruguay, Gourcuff was poor, with former Les Bleus international Just Fontaine saying that Gourcuff was “lost” during the match. It later came out that Anelka and Ribéry agreed to “freeze out” Gourcuff, not passing him the ball or recognizing his presence on the pitch. When reports about this agreement surfaced, many in the French media demanded that Anelka and Ribéry be dropped for the Mexico match, but Domenech instead chose to drop Gourcuff. The dispute within the French team, seemingly centered around Gourcuff, continued, and Anelka was sent home early for berating Domenech after being substituted during the Mexico match. In France’s final group stage match, a 2-1 loss to South Africa, Gourcuff was sent off for elbowing a South African player in the face, marking an end to a miserable tournament for both him and France.

While Gourcuff may have been privately suffering from his experience at the World Cup, his public image continued to be somewhat strong. While he received his fair share of criticism regarding France’s failure in South Africa, his reputation was still fairly intact. He would leave Bordeaux for Olympique Lyon later that year, becoming one of the highest paid French players in the world. He was seen as a key piece necessary to restart OL’s dominance in Ligue 1, but the move was a false dawn in his career. Gourcuff showed, at times, the quality he possessed that made him the hope of French football, but those moments were few and far between. His time at the Rhône club was characterized by an overall lack of confidence and consistency, as well as long and frequent injury spells. In the five seasons he played for Les Gones, Gourcuff would miss 90 games due to injury. His personality quirks also did not earn him many friends in the Lyon dressing room, and his insistence on not playing unless he was 100% fit deepened those divides, leading to public criticism from club captain Maxime Gonalons. He would leave Lyon on a free transfer in 2015, having not come close to achieving the highs that many thought were possible.

He returned to his boyhood club Rennes for the 2015/16 season, but the same issues persisted. He would only score a handful of goals for the club and would continue to suffer significant injury spells, forcing him into playing less than 15 league games in two of his three seasons in Brittany. He was released by Rennes in 2018 and signed with Dijon. He would only make eight league appearances for them, however, and his contract was terminated in January 2019 after being ruled out for the remainder of the season with another injury.

A decade on, almost to the day, from Gourcuff’s world-famous goal, he was out of football. All of the accolades, titles, and glory that was promised to “Le Successeur” in the aftermath of that night in wine country were never achieved or won. A decade after he was hailed as France’s new hope, he became their greatest perplexity. A once promising career was now reduced to one question:

“What if?”

What if the injuries had not happened? What if he had never went to Milan? Or Lyon? What if France had not made the World Cup in 2010? What if he was born in a different generation of French players?

Following Les Bleus‘ triumph in Russia in 2018, it is clear that the French football world has found their next set of heroes to replace the 1998 generation, but it is hard to not think back to Yoann Gourcuff and the unfulfilled promise that he and many others held. Every year, on January 11th, French fans think about that goal, they remember that moment, they hear the roar of the crowd and the jubilation of Margotton, and they all ask the same question…

What if?

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