How Stade Rennes became Europe’s talent factory

Stade Rennes regularly produces talent for Europe’s top clubs. It has to do with a radical paradigm shift – and with Salma Hayek’s husband.

Three of exceptional talent: Jeremy Doku, Ousmane Dembelé and Eduardo Camavinga in the Stade Rennes shirt.
imago pictures (3)

Stade Rennes owes its identity to the “new Ronaldo”. The “new Ronaldo” was the biggest transfer flop in the club’s history.

In 2000, the then middle-class club was worth 150 million francs (a good 21 million euros) for the Brazilian center forward Lucas Severino, whom Inter Milan president Massimo Moratti had chosen to succeed his striker at the time. 72 league games with a total of six goals later, Severino was handed over to Japan – and the club’s philosophy with it.

Dembelé, Camavinga, Rutter: non-stop talent

It is an expression of success somewhere that Severino remained the most expensive purchase in the club’s history until 2020. Even more it is probably the strong season that the current fourth in the table is playing in Ligue 1 and in the Europa Conference League. And most of all it is the look at the departures of the past few years.

Ousmane Dembelé became one of the most expensive players in the world, Eduardo Camavinga heir to the throne at Real Madrid, Tiemoué Bakayoko became a million-dollar business for AS Monaco when he was sold to Chelsea, Edouard Mendy guaranteed Chelsea’s Champions League victory. Sofiane Diop, who was also sold to Monaco, is currently considered France’s great new playmaker talent, Georginio Rutter is becoming one of the shooting stars of the Bundesliga at Hoffenheim – and in England Ismaila Sarr at Watford FC is said to have been the focus of Liverpool FC . With the exception of Mendy, they all come from Rennes’ youth academy.

More than five first division players per junior year

In total, “L’Equipe” calculated that between 2014 and 2020 alone, a whopping 34 players from Rennes’ youth division made it into the squad of a Ligue 1 club. That makes an almost uncanny rate of more than five future first division players per year.

In the self-proclaimed “League of Talents” where clubs rely on their youth work, Rennes is the role model many other French clubs are emulating. Even without a big city like Paris, Lyon or Marseille as a demographic driving force, the club from the small university town has – measured by the size of the club – become the most successful talent factory in Europe in recent years. And that has to do with Lucas Severino.

In 1998, the Breton multi-billionaire Francois Pinault bought the club through his financial holding Artemis and initially did exactly what rich owners did with football clubs around the turn of the millennium: he pumped in money, wanted to beautify the club’s image with luxury transfers and bought in droves South American. The success of this approach: on a scale from 1 (Lucas Severino) to 10 (Ronaldo) rather not double digits.

Now Pinault probably wouldn’t have become the third richest man in France if he didn’t know how to absorb losing trades. And so in 2002 he decided on a radical paradigm shift: less South America, more Brittany. He quadrupled the budget for youth work, which since then has remained between seven and ten percent of the total budget. For comparison: According to the DFL report, the average expenditure of the Bundesliga clubs in 2020 was less than four percent.

Gucci, Balenciaga, Puma – and Stade Rennes

“The youth academy is the heart of our strategy,” said club president Nicolas Holveck 2020 in “L’Equipe”. “We’re counting on our young players to progress.” In France, only Paris St. Germain – for known reasons – is currently spending more money on the youth academy.

Pinault’s ambitious goal almost 20 years ago: Half of the professional squad should come from their own academy, if possible even from Brittany. A short time later he handed over the business to his son Francois-Henri. As the owner and CEO of the Kering empire, he owns the brands Gucci, Balenciaga, Puma – and of course Stade Rennes. He is married to actress Salma Hayek and has one child with model Linda Evangelista.

Francois Henri Pinault, Salma Hayek

The patron and his wife: Francois-Henri Pinault (left) with his wife Salma Hayek in Roazhon Park.
Getty Images

A man with a penchant for extravagance, one might think. But “FHP”, as he is called in France, is not a man of flashbulbs. He rarely gives interviews, it is said that he prefers the stands of the rather unadorned Roazhon Park in Rennes to the red carpet.

So sticking to his father’s philosophy is only surprising at first glance. Bringing out the starlets before they achieve great fame elsewhere: Pinault, of all people, the luxury boss and glamor husband, has turned his hometown club into anti-Hollywood.

When Rennes beat the favored PSG in the final of the Coupe de France in 2019 and thus won a title again after 48 years of waiting, “FHP”, who mostly stays in the background in day-to-day business, was carried away to make a statement: “When we Club took over in 1998, my father said, ‘We’re doing this to give back to Brittany what they gave us.'” Music to the ears of the fans, who chanted for the patron at the home game against Monaco a week later: “Francois Pinault est rouge et noir”. Francois Pinault is red and black.

No regular player over 30

The investments paid off – as so often in the life of Pinault senior and junior – even before the first title. As of 2006, Rennes’ youth academy has been named the best academy in the country six times in a row. The earnings for Yoann Gourcuff, Stephane Mbia or Yann M’Vila far exceeded the costs of the training. And that was long before Dembelé and Camavinga.

Rennes is currently on track for possibly the best season in the club’s history. Only two points separate the Bretons from second place in the table, they remained unbeaten in the preliminary round of the Conference League – even after the game was canceled against Tottenham. Coach Bruno Genesio’s team plays attractive attacking football, all regular players are under 30.

Jeremy documentary

“The Next Big Thing”? Jeremy Doku is arguably the greatest talent in Rennes’ current squad.
imago images/Panoramic

Nevertheless, Pinault Sr.’s wish did not come true. “Only” nine of the current 28 licensed players were trained at the club – none of them is older than 21. Rennes will continue to have to hand over the big talents sooner rather than later – not only to Dortmund, Madrid or London, but also to Sinsheim, Watford or Udine.

On the other hand, the expensive sales of Camavinga, Sarr and Mendy have flushed so much money into the coffers in recent years that they have recently been heavily reinvested. For example in the Croatian Lovro Majer (23), who has immediately taken over the scepter in midfield since moving from Zagreb in the summer and is now on the list of larger clubs. Or in winger Kamaldeen Sulemana (19), whom Bayer 04 Leverkusen wanted to bring from Nordsjaelland last winter, but who is now showing his enormous potential in Rennes.

The greatest talent in the squad after Camavinga’s departure has hardly been able to contribute to the success of the current season. Jeremy Doku (19), who came from Anderlecht in 2020, demanded more from the defense of eventual title holders Italy in the quarter-finals of the European Championship in the summer than most of the established stars in the tournament, but was unable to pick up speed this season due to injury.

Should the foreseeable event occur and Doku show its potential in Rennes, it should not be cheap for the potentially affluent buyers. After all, the Bretons themselves paid 26 million for the speed dribbler last year.

A transfer cost more for them in 2000. And Rennes can probably do without a “new new Ronaldo”. Unless it needs a new identity again.