Timing is everything. A perfect photo or a blurred mess, a hilarious joke or a fluffed gag, a defence-splitting pass or a ball bobbling hopelessly over the sideline. Such things depend on fractions of seconds, intervals so short the mind can’t contemplate. It is not a matter of technique nor of application; it is an instinct which can never be learned.
Every once in a while the world of football throws up a player whose timing is such that the players, and even the ball around him, seem to move relative to him. He is the kind of player who never appears harried, rarely stressed, who plays the game at an effortless pace where time seems to warp to accommodate him. Games are frequently won and lost not on 90 minutes of hassle and chase but on fleeting moments that, even in slow-motion replay, seem to defy logic by their sheer, simple perfection.
Yoann Gourcuff, the darling of Bordeaux, would seem to have it all. The extraordinary talent, the film-star looks, an innate feeling for the ball and the adoration of a swelling number of fans. Last season, on loan from Serie A, he won Ligue 1 on his own. Not just the latest in a long line of ‘Next Zidanes’, (remember Bruno Cheyrou, Johan Micoud…?), Gourcuff has the ball-on-a-string touch of Ronaldinho in his pomp and the game-breaking spee of Kaká. The frightening combination of these attributes is epitomised by his jaw-dropping goal against Paris St. Germain on January 11th 2009 (YouTube it, seriously).
And yet, in one important way, Gourcuff’s timing is curiously off. Having shown by the age of 20 that he was simply too good for the French league, he did what most young men would have done in his position and opted for the most attractive offer on the table. A dozen clubs were jostling for the exciting young Frenchman’s signature, but he chose A.C. Milan. A.C. Milan, home of Kaká. A.C. Milan, where the average age of the playing staff wasin the mid 40s. A.C Milan, where Patrick Vieira had floundered, where Ibrahim Ba had disappeared and where Jean-Pierre Papin’s career had gone to die. It was to be a frustrating couple of years for the boy from Bretagne as first Kaká then Ronaldinho took the starting berths reserved for creative midfielders at the San siro.
And so Gourcuff did what most slightly older, slightly wiser men would have done in his position and headed back to France on loan. Back in the small pool he made an instant splash and, while David Beckham was drafted in to fill the gaping creative gap that could have been his back in Italy, Gourcuff quietly, then more volubly, began to make an impact on Ligue 1 again. Having destroyed the championship with one breathtaking display after another, Gourcuff’s stock had risen to the point where dozens of clubs would once again do battle for his signature. Somewhat inexplicably, having waved goodbye to Golden Balls and having witnessed the continuing demise of Ronaldinho Gaucho, Milan let him go for a cut-price €13m. On the 28th of May, he officially signed for les Girondins. On the 1st of June, Kaká left the rossoneri for Madrid.
Already, the maestro from Morbihan has picked up where he left off, with two man-of-the-match performances in the first two games of the French season and two goals from midfield to begin Bordeaux’s league defence. But one can’t help the feeling that he’s slumming it somewhat. With Karim Benzema gone south to join the Spanish revolution, Gourcuff is at the moment by far the biggest star in Le Championnat. At 23 years of age, his career should be all ahead of him and it’s highly unlikely that he’ll see out his four-year contract. However, having had his wings burned once already, Yoann will have to think long and hard about what his next move should be once the world comes calling again at the end of the season. But with a few years’ extra experience, Gourcuff should be able to command a starting spot at the centre of almost any team in the world.
As long as it’s not Real Madrid.