KNYSNA, June 15- Socially isolated and largely anonymous on the pitch, Yoann Gourcuff has endured a disquieting start to his first World Cup campaign with France.
The Bordeaux playmaker has long been considered his country’s natural heir to Zinedine Zidane, but his ineffective performance in Friday’s 0-0 draw with Uruguay has added weight to calls from him to be dropped.
At 23 and with only 21 caps to his name, Gourcuff is experiencing for the first time the unique claustrophobia of a major tournament.
In France’s opening match against the Uruguayans, the former AC Milan player looked hesitant and uncomfortable, frequently giving the ball away despite his deserved reputation as a midfielder of supreme technical quality.
The question on everyone’s lips since the start of last season has been: Where is the Gourcuff of 2008-09, who swept all before him with Bordeaux and became an integral component of France’s first-choice XI?
Gourcuff had been looking to the World Cup to help banish the memories of a dreadful season with Bordeaux, who meekly failed to defend their French title and finished sixth.
But his poor form has persisted and his problems have been compounded by the suspicion that he has become a peripheral member of the France squad, ignored by the team’s leaders and senior stars.
In French sport daily L’Equipe on Friday, France captain Patrice Evra confirmed in just a few words that Gourcuff is something of an outcast.
"Yo (Gourcuff), I never hear him," Evra said.
"To speak to Gourcuff, you have to talk to (Jeremy) Toulalan. It’s with him that I see him having a laugh."
There is even speculation in the French media that Gourcuff is being ignored by his teammates on the pitch, with Nicolas Anelka and Franck Ribery allegedly guilty of deliberately failing to pass to him against Uruguay.
In training and particularly during warm-ups at France’s plush World Cup base, the malaise is noticeable.
Gourcuff often trains alone or goes through his warm-up routine with either his Bordeaux team-mates – Alou Diarra, Cedric Carrasso and Marc Planus – or Toulalan, his only allies in the French set-up.
Is Gourcuff a victim of jealousy provoked by his golden boy status or is he simply too fragile psychologically?
Writing in L’Equipe on Sunday, former France left-back Bixente Lizarazu said Gourcuff was "too self-effacing, too nice and probably too well-brought up".
"Today he needs to start baring his teeth and sharpening his elbows."
Gourcuff’s current struggles come as a surprise to Patrick Rampillon, his coach at Rennes during his formative years.
"I’m surprised," Rampillon told AFP. "With the young players, everyone was in agreement about him. There were no flaws in his character and no warning signs. "Looking at the match against Uruguay and saying there was a problem with Gourcuff is a bit strong."
It cannot be denied, however, that Gourcuff seems a shadow of the player he was in 2009.
France coach Raymond Domenech has long supported his rising star but must now decide whether or not to take decisive action by dropping Gourcuff for the potentially pivotal second Group A game against Mexico on Thursday.