Football Features

The future stars Rennes picked up and sold for millions

By Emile Avanessian

Published: 14:28, 18 May 2023

Stade Rennais, or simply Rennes, aren’t often the first club that springs to mind when we think of Ligue 1 but the Brittany-based side’s scouting network has influenced the top tiers of European football for three decades and counting.

A fixture in Ligue 1 for much of the 20th century, in the 1980s Rennes found its very existence under threat, leading to a takeover by the municipality of Rennes. In 1998, after a period of austerity returned Rennes to firmer financial footing (and, in 1994, back to Ligue 1), the most prominent club in France’s northwestern region of Brittany was sold to Artémis Group, the holding company of French businessman (and native Bretton) Francois Pinault.

On the surface, Pinault fits the profile of ‘prominent businessman who purchased his local club’. Though accurate, Pinault is not just any local businessman. He is one of the 30 richest people on the planet (his holdings include Christie’s Auction House, Puma, multiple French wine houses, and many fashion brands, including Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent and Alexander McQueen), with a net worth of just over $40 billion.

Rennes have not competed for silverware like Pinault’s fortune might suggest they could (their only major trophy in the past 50 years is the 2018-19 Coupe de France), but the club has proven extremely adept at identifying, acquiring and developing young players who’ve made lasting marks not only in French football, but across Europe. Today, we’re taking a look at a handful of them.

Sylvain Wiltord (1991-97 / 2007-09)

Long before he was winning Premier League titles and FA Cups with ‘the Invincibles’, Ligue 1 titles with Bordeaux (once) and Lyon (three times) or earning 92 France national team caps, winning the Euros (2000) and taking to the pitch in the World Cup final, Wiltord appeared 94 times for Rennes over four seasons and scored 31 goals.

His second season with the club (1993-94), his eight goals contributed to Rennes’ return to the top tier. After 23 goals in 66 appearances in all competitions over the next two seasons, he was sold to Deportivo La Coruña during their ‘Super Dépor’ phase. He never actually played for them. Dépor loaned him back to Rennes, for 40 appearances and another three goals in 1996-97, before making a slight profit themselves by selling him on to Bordeaux.

He later became Arsenal’s record signing when they bought him for around £13m in 2000. In 2007, a decade after his departure, Wiltord returned to Rennes, and appeared in 41 games over two seasons, scoring eight times in 41 appearances.

Mikaël Silvestre (1996-98)

A product of the Rennes football academy, Silvestre appeared in 54 games over three seasons. He built quite a reputation in that time and, by 1998, Manchester United and Inter Milan were vying for his services. He initially moved to Inter but after a single season signed with Manchester United for a fee of £4 million. The rest, as they say, is history.

Over eight seasons in Manchester, Silvestre made 361 appearances, and contributed to four Premier League titles, an FA Cup, a League Cup and Champions League win in 2007–08.

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Petr Cech (2002-04)

In July 2002, at the age of 20 and with two professional seasons in the Czech Republic under his belt, Cech was acquired by Rennes from Sparta Prague for the then-hefty reported sum of €5.5 million.

Of his time at Rennes, Cech said, “I was saving the team pretty much every game [in my first season], and I think it’s probably why people suddenly realised that I contributed probably the most to staying in Ligue 1.

“The second season we improved a lot and we finished in the top half, and then from there, gradually the team was getting better and better and better and it’s been a pleasure to watch the club getting through the Europa League to the Champions League now.”

After 18 months in France, Rennes basically doubled their money when Cech became one of the signature signings of Roman Abramovich’s ‘new Chelsea’, moving to London for another significant (again, at the time) fee. This time of £7 million.

Over the next decade-and-a-half, Cech became a staple of English football, winning four Premier League titles, four FA cups, three League Cups, the Champions League and the Europa League with Chelsea, as well as another FA Cup with Arsenal.

It’s admittedly a hefty, hefty list and opinions may vary, but it’s tough to identify a single signing that more effectively set the tone for the successes that followed at Chelsea.

In May 2023, the former Chelsea and Arsenal man became just the second ever goalkeeper to be entered into the Premier League Hall of Fame after the Great Dane, Peter Schmeichel. He holds the record for the most clean sheets in the competition’s history (202) and the most clean sheets in a single Premier League campaign (24 in 2004/05) as well as winning the prestigious Golden Glove on four occasions, including the inaugural award back in 2005.

Yoann Gourcuff (2003-06 / 2015-18)

In 2001, after nearly a decade in the youth academy at Lorient, at the age of 15, Gourcuff made the jump to Rennes’ by-now-highly-regarded youth setup. After another two years of youth football, he made his senior debut. After playing sparingly as a 17-year-old in 2003-04, he began to feature regularly, featured prominently, and ultimately blossomed into one of Europe’s best young midfielders (and a dreaded ‘next Zidane’) in 2005-06, when he appeared in 47 games across all competitions, and scored six goals.

Seemingly destined to become one of European football’s great attacking midfielders, he made the move in 2006 to AC Milan. Though his two seasons in Italy did yield a Champions League winner’s medal (2007), his tenure overall did not live up to expectations. After 54 appearances and just three goals in two seasons, he was sent back to Bordeaux on loan with a scathing review from Paolo Maldini (“Gourcuff in Milan was wrong 100 per cent,” he told L’Equipe in 2010. “His problem here was his behaviour […] He knows what he did.”).

It was at Bordeaux that he reached his unfortunately all-too-brief peak. While on loan in 2008 2009, he enjoyed the best season of his career, scoring 15 times in 49 appearances, and helping lead the club to a league title and cup double. “I felt ill when Zidane retired. Watching Gourcuff has cured me,” said former Bordeaux defender Christophe Dugarry, adding: “When I see players like him, I feel like a small boy again.”

After one more strong season in Bordeaux (43 appearances, 9 goals), Gourcuff was on the move again, this time to Lyon. Though he occasionally flashed the brilliance of his youth while with Lyon, a variety of lower body injuries sapped his explosiveness, but his ability to get on the pitch at all. Over the last decade of his career – which included a seven-goals-in-53-appearances return to Rennes – Gourcuff only appeared in 30 matches across all competitions twice, and four times failed to make it onto the pitch 20 times.

It’s an incredible shame for a player whose potential once seemed limitless.

Ousmane Dembélé (2014-16)

Before he was linking up with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at Borussia Dortmund as one of Europe’s leading young lights, before he was a nine-figure target for Barcelona, before he was tasked with stepping into the void left by Neymar (he lost much of his first four seasons in Catalunya to injury, and unfairly drew the ire of fans and the local press), before he lifted the World Cup, before, under the guidance of Xavi, he seemingly, spectacularly got his career back on track, Ousmane Dembélé was the crown jewel of Rennes’ youth setup.

In 2010, at the age of just 13, Dembele joined Rennes’ academy. Five spectacular (presumably – I didn’t see them) years later, he debuted with the club’s second team in the fourth tier, scoring 13 times in 18 appearances. At this point he was already one of the hottest prospects in French football.

Dembélé spent one more season in France with Rennes’ senior team, becoming the youngest-ever player to score 10 Ligue 1 goals within a single season, before departing for Dortmund. It may be a bit early to declare total victory on Dembélé’s behalf, but it is delightful to see a career that looked destined for the ‘what if’ pile getting back on track.

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Eduardo Camavinga (2018-21)

At this point we’re firmly in the ‘highly touted at Rennes = top-tier European prospect’ portion of the program. Like Dembele just a couple of years earlier in 2013, Camavinga joined Rennes’ academy aged 11. He too spent five years in the youth ranks before debuting with the club’s ‘B’ team in 2018.

The following season, 2018-19, Camavinga made his senior debut at just 16 years of age and made seven appearances. Over the next two seasons, however, his star rose spectacularly, as he made 75 appearances across all competitions, and skyrocketed to the top of many a European transfer wish list.

At the beginning of last season, it was Real Madrid who won the sweepstakes. Thus far, he has made 95 appearances across all competitions for Los Blancos, already lifting six trophies in Spain, including LaLiga, Copa del Rey, Supercopa de Espana, UEFA Super Cup, FIFA Club World Cup and the Champions League in his first season with the club.

Not only excelling in midfield, the Frenchman has already shown Carlo Ancelotti how adaptable he can be, slotting in seamlessly at left-back for the majority of this season, before eventually what will probably be sooner rather than later, help replace Toni Kroos and Luka Modric in Madrid’s engine room for years to come.

Raphinha (2019-21)

Although his exploits have already made him something of a household name, it feels as though Raphinha’s star is only just beginning to rise.

The young Brazilian moved to Europe in 2015, at 19 years of age. In three seasons with the reserve and senior teams Vitoria Guimaraes, his talent was so evident that Portuguese giants Sporting Club de Portugal came calling. After a little over one season in Lisbon, in which he scored nine times in 41 appearances, he was on the move again – this time to Brittany, and Rennes, for a club-record €21 million fee. 

Raphinha is the odd one out in this article, because Rennes seem to have dropped the ball on handling his recruitment and sale. They actually lost money. His time with Rennes mirrored his time in Lisbon. He scored eight times in 36 appearances, before a bigger league came calling, this time Leeds United from the Premier League.

In comments that make his transfer even stranger, Raphinha told ESPN Brazil: “I learned on the Saturday [October 3, two days before his move], when I joined the rest of the squad for training, that Rennes had accepted an offer for me.

“I was a little surprised, because I was just finishing my debut season in France. We had started the season well in the league and I was already thinking of playing my first Champions League.

“They told me that they would not want to sell me for less than €60m (£55m/$73m),” he noted. “Knowing that the club accepted the offer, no more and no less, without telling me, I felt devalued.

“The offer was less than what they had spent to recruit me. It made it clear to me that I was not part of the plans of the club and the coach. They just decided to sell me.”

After just two seasons in the Premier League, where the Brazilian scored 17 goals and provided 12 assists in just 65 appearances, the time was right to move on to pastures new and a new challenge with Catalan giants Barcelona for a reported fee of £50m. The former Rennes man has just become a LaLiga champion for the first time, adding to the Supercopa de Espana he won earlier in the season, the first major trophies he has won in a top five European league during his career.