In total, Gourcuff spent nearly 30 years of his life with Les Merlus¸ interspersed with short spells elsewhere, and he never swayed from his commitment to attractive, attacking football. A stint in charge of a national team was missing from his CV, however, until he stepped in to replace Vahid Halilhodzic shortly after the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
Still a relative newcomer to the Algeria hot seat, Gourcuff spoke to FIFA.com about his first few months in charge of Les Fennecs.
Christian Gourcuff: I didn't dream about it, in the sense that it wasn't premeditated. It's something that came about over time, but it wasn't planned. In the evolution of a career, you need to coach a club to amass experience, which you can then draw on to perform well with a national side. That's the order things need to happen in. Until a few months ago, when I was still working day to day at club level, I didn't see myself becoming an international coach.
After serving as a club coach for more than 30 years, what has been the biggest change to your working methods?
My work now is focused more on quality, which really suits me. I have more time to prepare training sessions. I travel as well, going pretty much everywhere to check on players. That said, it's slightly frustrating not to have the team as often as I'd like so that we can work on understanding between the players, and also because we can't control certain aspects of their fitness preparations. We're able to take stock of their fitness levels during get-togethers, but we don't have any direct impact.
At Lorient, you developed a style of play based on possession and building moves. Has it been a challenge to translate that to Algeria?
It's obviously more difficult because we have less time to work on team understanding, but that's something I was well aware of before I took over. That's also one of the main reasons I didn't feel ready to lead an international team a few years ago, but now it's a sort of challenge for me to try to have an influence on the team in a very short space of time. I'm focused on the quality of the work and the best possible use of that time. That's what's exciting about this job.
How would you define the main characteristics of the Algeria players at your disposal?
On the technical side, what they enjoy about playing is having the ball at their feet. Lads like Yacine Brahimi and Sofiane Feghouli breathe football and exude a love of playing. On a human level, I've found that the players have a real freshness about them. I don't want to go overboard, but their emotional freshness surprised me a lot at the start. There's a richness in our exchanges that you don't get at a Ligue 1 club, for example. That's been really good for me, even if I'm only able to spend time with the players during squad get-togethers. There's a great atmosphere and a real love of life within this squad. Of course, then you have the problems that come along during tournaments, such as frustration among those who aren't playing, but it's the same in any international squad.
What is the message you have tried to pass on the most to your players?
In general, I've been stressing team ethic and the pleasure that comes from playing with each other and for each other. The pleasure of playing together depends first of all on fulfilling your duties to your colleagues. As soon as you accept that, we can all move forward. If the players aren't open to that, anything that you plan in terms of tactics will always be a little shaky.
What was it like watching Algeria at the World Cup, knowing that you might be the team's next coach?
The hardest thing was to wait while being in a slightly ambiguous position. International tournaments don't correspond with the period between seasons at a club, so it was risky to just wait. You oversee things and imagine the future while watching the team perform on the pitch. It wasn't an easy situation to be in, but I thought the team showed a lot of solidarity and enthusiasm.
Focusing on their Round-of-16 match with eventual winners Germany, did that game make your job easier by raising confidence levels or harder because of heightened expectations?
More difficult, obviously! My tactical approach was the opposite of my predecessor's, and the team were enjoying huge media attention after that performance. I took over just before the next qualifying campaign, so I couldn't afford to mess up. The two games against Ethiopia and Mali were massively important. It was a new start, so I had to underline the tactical choices I intended to work with, and do it with enough tact that there was a sense of continuity. I think it worked out, given that the qualifiers went well. Plus I had another advantage, which was also one of the reasons I committed myself to Algeria: I sensed that the players had a similar sensibility to my own. It wasn't a guarantee of anything, but it was an additional factor that nudged me towards taking on the role.
What are your thoughts now on the 2015 CAF Africa Cup of Nations, your first experience of a major international tournament having ended in a quarter-final loss to Côte d'Ivoire?
It was rewarding in many ways. In terms of the competition itself, it's well known that the conditions were difficult, with the pitches favouring the more athletic teams. Although you go in expecting it, you're always a bit surprised by the difference in conditions compared to Europe. The Africa Cup of Nations was a disappointment because I think we had what it took to win it. It came down to a quarter-final against the eventual champions, but we made too many defensive errors in that game to go through, even though I think we were superior to our opponents. I have regrets now because I know that if we'd gone through, we'd have come across pitches better suited to our style of football.
Has your approach changed at all since then? Do you think you will be able to build something over a long period of time with Algeria, as you did at Lorient?
I think our performances showed how the team is blossoming. My approach hasn't changed in terms of ambition, even if it's true that a national side has a very short lifespan, which is less the case at club level. There are exceptions, though. For example, Germany made some very clear decisions in the 2000s and, at team level, they've benefited from all the investment made in recent years. But that's what it takes to get results with a national team, even if it's less clear-cut than with a club.