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Cambodian prince bids to restore French football’s fallen giants Saint-Étienne to former glory

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Cambodian prince Norodom Ravichak has confirmed a bid to take over struggling Saint-Étienne, a cash-strapped club whose declining fortunes belie its former status as French football royalty.

After a rotten start to the season, Saint-Étienne are lying second from the bottom in France’s top-division Ligue 1, deep in the relegation zone. But Prince Charming may be coming to the rescue.

Norodom Ravichak, the Cambodian king’s nephew, has joined a bidding race for the ten-time French champions, commonly known as Les Verts owing to their iconic green jerseys. A Francophile businessman known for his humanitarian work, he plans to make “Sainté” a symbol of cooperation between his home country and its former colonial power.

“I am officially a candidate to take over AS Saint-Étienne,” the 47-year-old prince told FRANCE 24’s sister radio RFI this week, promising to “take good care of Saint-Étienne” and pledging “long-term” investment in the club.

Fallen giants

Based in the eponymous “rust belt” industrial city in east-central France, Saint-Étienne are football royalty in France, known for their impressive tally of trophies and passionate fans. With 10 top division titles, they are still France’s only club to have reached double digits (PSG and Marseille are tied at 9). Local fans say they would also have been the first French club to lift the European Cup were it not for Hampden Park’s famous square goalposts, which repeatedly denied Les Verts a goal during their 1976 final defeat to Bayern Munich.

However, Saint-Étienne’s fortunes have ebbed dramatically since their heyday in the 1960s and ’70s, including a financial collapse in the early 1980s and two spells in second division. While they’ve been a fixture of Ligue 1 for the past 16 seasons, they’re once again in dire financial straits as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and the collapse of a lucrative television deal. 

The club’s annual budget has shrunk from €110 million two years ago to just €70 million, allowing for the purchase of just one player in the last transfer market. The club has officially been on sale since April 2021. 

According to French daily Le Parisien, Prince Ravichak has offered to pay €100 million for the ailing club and talks could begin very soon.

‘I’ve always had a soft spot for Saint-Etienne’

The son of Norodom Chakrapong, the Cambodian king’s half-brother, Norodom Ravichak is a grandson of the late Norodom Sihanouk, the “King Father” of Cambodia who was once a close friend of Charles de Gaulle. To this day, the royal family maintains close ties with France, splitting its time between Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, and Paris. Ravichak himself runs a consulting firm based in the French capital’s 13th arrondissement (district), home to the city’s largest South-East Asian community.

The prince was born in exile in Canton (China’s modern-day Guangzhou) in 1974, during Cambodia’s bloody civil war, and later educated in France. He has developed a vast business network in Europe, the Middle East and China, where he enjoys close ties with a number of state-owned companies and investment funds. He is often referred to as Cambodia’s crown prince, though technically there is no such role in the country’s constitutional monarchy. Instead, Ravichak serves as an honorary ambassador.

In France, the Cambodian royal has been mostly noticed for his humanitarian work, appearing at a fundraiser organised by the “The Heart Fund” at the Cannes Film Festival in 2018. He was a recipient of the Grand Prix Humanitaire de France in 2009. A football fan, he took part in a charity match in Rouen in 2014, sponsored by the former PSG and Saint-Étienne player Mathieu Bodmer.

“I’m passionate about football, having grown up following the French league and of course France’s national team,” he told RFI. “I’ve always had a soft spot for Saint-Étienne, who hold a special place among France’s top clubs.”

Rival bids

For the time being, the Association Sportive de Saint-Etienne (ASSE) is still in the hands of its two main shareholders, Bernard Caïazzo and Roland Romeyer. The two are at odds over the club’s future and have picked Anglo-Dutch consultants KPMG to examine the bids. They’re hoping to wrap up the sale by the end of 2021.

So far, two bidders have met the consultants’ first requirement: a bank guarantee of at least €100 million. One is the Terrapin investment fund linked to Jérôme de Bontin, a Franco-American businessman with experience of heading football clubs AS Monaco and the New York Red Bulls. The other involves local businessmen backed by a wealthy Luxembourg fund. 

According to sports daily L’Equipe, Romeyer leans towards the Franco-Luxembourg bid while Prince Ravichak has the backing of Caïazzo.

The Cambodian prince says he is not after a mere “financial operation”.

“My ambitions for Saint-Étienne are both national and international,” he said, floating plans to set up football academies in his home country and across Asia. He added: “If we reach a deal, I will provide the resources to fulfil these ambitions and restore Saint-Étienne to its former splendor.”

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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The Groucho

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