It seems almost peculiar to sit ‘splashing of cash’ in the same sentence as ‘Rennes.’ Yet, following the announcement that Benjamin Bourigeaud, Faitout Maouassa, Jordan Tell and Hamari Traoré are all set arrive at Roazhon Park this summer for a combined total thought to be in the region of €15m, the phrase is unnervingly apt.
Naturally, the question on the lips of every fan of Les Rouges et Noirs, is whether this is will now be the moment when, finally, la famille Pinault will sweep away the dust of misuse that has infested their deep pockets at Rennes since the distressing days of Lucas Severino. Are Rennes on the brink of entering a brave, elite, new world?
The potential for mass investment that could catapult the Breton club into the realms of football’s elite is well known. According to Forbes, Pinault Snr is the 63rd richest man on the planet, worth an impressive $15,7 billion. This puts him higher than the Russian heavyweights Dmitry Rybolovlev of Monaco (€7,3 billion, 190th) and even Roman Abramovich of Chelsea ($9.1bn, 139th).
Yet, hitherto, Rennes have continued to stagnate. Investment at Roazhon Park has not resembled anything like that of the Russians. After initially making large but disappointing outlays in the likes of Severino and Mario Turdo after taking over the club in 1998, the Pinault family have sought stability, and more importantly, balanced books.
A decade of underachievement later means a change in approach would not be surprising. On the face of it, the omens look good. Notably, of the four new arrivals, the acquisition of Faitout Maouassa could be seen as a mark of intent. The flying full-back caught the eye with Nancy last season, earning a spot in France’s Under 20 World Cup squad, and the left sided player is thought to have chosen Christian Gourcuff’s side over the likes of Marseille. Likewise, Benjamin Bourigeaud is another bright prospect, having had a standout season in Ligue 2 with a Lens side that narrowly missed out on promotion.
The most promising sign from a supporter’s perspective, rather than the names per-se, is a renewed emphasis on recruitment. The last time Rennes spent more money than they received in player sales was six years ago, during the 2011-2012 campaign. Encouragingly, the spending is not expected to stop with Rennes’ four latest additions, with Karl Toko Ekambi of Angers and Vincent Aboubakar of Porto among current names linked with the club. Both Aboubakar and Toko Ekambi, intriguingly, are likely to command fees in excess of €10 million.
However, Rennes’ brave new world may look more familiar than not. It would be naïve to suggest that Rennes will be competing with the likes of Lille and Marseille under their new ownership, let alone PSG or Monaco this summer. Unlike the Qataris at PSG, or Rybolovlev at Monaco, the Pinault family do not need a football club. They do not need to showcase their wealth on a scale that puts them firmly in the public eye. Pinault Snr is an art collector first and foremost; football is a mere hobby.
In an interview given back in 2012 for the book Supporters du Stade Rennais, Francois-Henri Pinault emphasised that, for the family, purchasing Rennes was not strategic, but merely a way of giving back to Brittany, providing the north west with an ‘ambitious’ football club. Ambitious, nonetheless, did not mean turning Rennes into Abramovich’s Chelsea. It did not mean, he made clear, turning Rennes into the “best club.”
It did, however, mean ensuring Rennes remain competitive in Ligue Un. Last season saw the wholesale departure of much of Rennes’ attacking arsenal. Ousmane Dembélé’s exit was very much an inevitability, but with Pedro Henrique, Ola Toivonen, Philipp Hosiner and later in January Paul-Georges Ntep and Kamil Grosicki all following close behind out the back door with only Mubele and Amalfitano moving the other way, Christian Gourcuff has been left to paper over the cracks with a blunt pencil, alias Giovani Sio.
The consequence was another disappointing campaign, narrowly finishing ahead of Guingamp by virtue of a single goal, and behind Nantes, who had spent the opening weeks of the campaign languishing at the wrong end of the table.
Criticism, understandably, has been sent Gourcuff’s way. Rennes have underachieved on the pitch, but off it, he has been offered little opportunity to rectify the situation. He has, for all intents and purposes, had the carpet swept from beneath him. Consistently, over the past five seasons, Rennes have profited from sales far higher than what they have invested.
The former Rennes player has gone so far as to suggest that the club are no longer the biggest club in Brittany, citing Guingamp as being able to offer wages double that of Rennes’ highest earner. He has underperformed, but in light of Rennes’s decade of antipathetic transfer activity, it is not hard to see why this is the case.
Change, then, has to be in the offing. But it will not be as ‘brave’ or as ‘new’ as many at Roazhon Park long for it to be. It will be a change to rectify an imbalance, an imbalance that has seen players go but to the detriment of team performance, leaving the club to slip away down the table, threatening to turn stagnation into regression. As Gourcuff remarked only a matter of weeks ago, Rennes ‘need to be fifth,’ and if Pinault is to invest, it will be to push Rennes back up to that mark, and no further.