In Rennes, crisis swirls
A couple of weeks ago, the morning after Stade Rennais’s 2–0 loss to Breton rivals Guingamp, a few members of the Roazhon Celtic Kop, the club’s premier ultra group, entered the Henri Guérin training centre to manifest their anger at the team’s recent form.
All around the ground, a series of banners were posted. Each was aimed at someone at the helm — president René Ruello, the man twice ousted from the club in the past, and Christian Gourcuff, another reinstated present at the club. Each notice conveyed the same clear message: Change is needed.
Others , carrying the same tone , were plastered across Roazhon Park: ‘Get Out Gourcuff’ read one, ‘You stain the colours’, another.
It was enough to trigger a media frenzy. One source said Ruello was no longer the president of Stade Rennais, and that Gourcuff was soon to follow. A furious conveyor belt of further reports followed with each carrying the same information, theorising possible successors – most notably, they all read, it was done.
There was, then, a shared sense of astonishment among the small assembly of journalists, anticipating outgoings, at the training ground the following afternoon, to be received by… Ruello.
“I just had François Pinault on the phone, he is not aware of anything!” he asserted to gathered group. “See you tomorrow!” he roared, almost mockingly, to Bouziane Benaraïbi, one of the assistant coaches who was collecting cones from the session.
A day later, the club released a carefully-worded statement on the club website, to confirm the position of Ruello, exclusively:
“The Board of Directors at Stade Rennais F.C. met as planned this morning at 11 am at La Piverdière. René Ruello was unanimously confirmed in his position as President.”
“The members of the Board of Directors were surprised by rumours and unfounded press articles published in recent days about a hypothetical dismissal of René Ruello.”
The name, meticulously excluded, was, of course, Gourcuff; a figure who, Ruello is said to have told the players, will coach, “as long as I’m president of the Stade Rennais.” There was no earnest mention of that man, no advocacy for the significantly under-fire manager whose team lingers in 13th place in Ligue 1. No message of defiance against the breathlessly publicised speculation that he had already departed, no reassurance, tellingly, backing him to guide them to safer waters. The sense lingers there is a different type of declaration, one specially reserved for Gourcuff, bearing a quite contrasting tone, ready to be delivered by the club before long. Below the surface, however, he isn’t, truly, the one who should be held liable. The bulk of the culpability can be traced considerably higher up.
When Francois Pinault, a Breton billionaire, and businessman, bought Rennes in 1998, he has always maintained his ambition was not to inject a bottomless pit of riches into the club, to transform them into one of the French heavyweights, nor really even to remould them into the best feasible version of itself. His idea for the project was something different: more, personal, apparently – if even a little solicitous.
“Our approach is not the same as that of Mr. Abramovich of Chelsea,” he said, in the ‘Supporters du Stade Rennais’ book, in 2012. “We did not buy Stade Rennais to make it the best club, but to give Brittany back what it gave us.”
For Pinault, providing the region with a passably competitive football team was enough. He was not there to become Rennes’ very own oligarch owner. Of course, it didn’t seem like that at the beginning.
In the summer of 2000, €58 million was splurged on a dozen players, Severino Lucas, the €21 million striker, of note. Only a handful of the giants in Europe spent more. A new, state of the art training facility, La Piverdière, was inaugurated - the kind that was fitting of one of the ‘best’, the kind that routinely churns out bright prospects. Pinault was the ‘Dream Maker’, claimed the fans and media.
The events that followed demonstrated it was, indeed, no more than a mere fantasy.
Many of the players signed struggled with the unfamiliar French culture. Luís Fabiano, the homesick, 20-year-old Brazilian striker, returned to Brazil in the winter. Paul Le Guen, the coach, was sacked at the end of the season and replaced with Gourcuff. Pinault, expectedly, didn’t lavishly spend in that next window.
Ruello had initially been president of the club from 1990 until Pinault’s purchase, before making way for Pierre Blayau; he was brought back in 2000 as part of that impressive start, but only lasted two years – his current stint at the club started in 2014.
The lack of forethought at the club under Pinault is a large chunk of the issue. Vahid Halilhodžić, the manager during the 2002/03, has previously mentioned Pinault “gave money and power to people who did not have the skills”. To find a way out of the ‘dead end’, he said, specialised personnel is needed.
It isn’t exclusively organisation which has stationed Rennes in this period of stagnation. Frédéric Antonetti, another former manager from 2009-13, spoke in 2014 of a neglect of the club.
“With François Pinault, physically, we saw each other twice a year,” he said, “once at the beginning of the season, another time in the middle, and then he came to the stadium with one or two matches.”
More damning words have been spoken of Rennes, by the candid 56-year-old : “Rennes is like Canada Dry: it has the colour of a large club, but it’s not.”
Before the launch of this season’s campaign, Rennes, like in 2000, boasted reason for optimism. Gourcuff had, like in 2000, invested shrewdly and ambitiously in his side for the forthcoming season, purchasing a chain of promising young talents : Jordan Tell, the French forward; Ismaïla Sarr, the electrifying Senegalese winger; Faitout Maouassa, the zesty French midfielder.
This time, a push for a spot in Europe appeared, realistically, within its grasp, something not achieved since 2011/12. Despite that, under the surface the same complications remain, the same cardinal issues – those that have scuppered Rennes for so long. A short string of wins since the Guingamp game – against Lille in the league, Dijon in the Coupe de la Ligue, and away at Montpellier on Saturday – has not changed that.
“There is no discussion, no plans for recovery,” according to a member of the Pinault family entourage in L’Equipe, a number of weeks ago. “Stade Rennais is not for sale. François Pinault and his son François-Henri remain deeply attached to the club and they share the same ambition for it.”
To decipher whether any truth genuinely lies in that affirmation is open to interpretation but deep down Pinault knows absolutely why Rennes are where they are.