x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Monaco seeks change in fortunes

The demise of the club was not mourned by many, but the desire to return to the top remains, and to do it quickly, writes Ian Hawkey.

The owners of Monaco expect the club, currently in Ligue 2, to return to the top flight . Jean Christophe Magnenet / AFP
The owners of Monaco expect the club, currently in Ligue 2, to return to the top flight . Jean Christophe Magnenet / AFP

Last Monday, the 93rd wealthiest man in the world and the reigning monarch of perhaps Europe's most glamorous royal family took the winding road up from the Cote d'Azur to a place called La Turbie, which perches on a flat step of hillside, to inspect a project in which they have a shared interest and great ambition. It was a sunny day on that corner of the Mediterranean, although the mood among those they were visiting felt a little anxious.

The VIP travellers were led by Dmitry Rybolovlev, the Russian billionaire, who a year ago purchased a majority stake in AS Monaco, a team with a distinguished history in French football, a fame for talent spotting and the development of good players, and an appearance in a Champions League final among the club's 21st century achievements. With him was Prince Albert of Monaco, who remains the second-biggest stakeholder in the institution.

Rybolovlev and Prince Albert, regulars at the Stade Louis II, where Monaco play their home games, are not frequent visitors to La Turbie, the practice site where manicured flat pitches reach out implausibly from the rock face.

The purpose of Monday's tour of inspection had been, the club explained officially, "to show the team and the head coach Claudio Ranieri, have the full support" of the bosses.

December has been a barren month so far for Monaco, featuring a heavy defeat in the league, 3-0 to Caen, a frustrating draw against Nimes and embarrassing elimination, on penalties, from the French Cup by lower-division Bourg-Peronnas.

Worse things than that have happened to Monaco in recent years.

The club's decline in status since they marched to the 2004 Champions League final in Gelsenkirchen, having knocked out Real Madrid and Chelsea on the way, has been dramatic.

They lost 3-0 to Porto that night, and key players such as Patrice Evra and Ludovic Giuly moved on, as did the coach Didier Deschamps, and at the end of the 2010/11 they were relegated to Ligue 2, France's second division.

Not everyone in the elite of French football mourned the descent of Monaco.

They are a unique club, but there are aspects of their particular status that cause resentment among the rest.

Because the principality of Monaco is politically independent from France, it has a distinct tax status. Because of the tax position, footballers there have significant salary advantages compared to those at other French clubs.

Nor is this a club with big fan base. The small and often transient Monaco population partly explains that.

Even in the Champions League, they did not always fill their stadium. In Ligue 2, crowds are sparse. Fewer than 4,500 were at the 1-1 draw with Nimes.

For all that, Monaco have a cachet, an important place in French football culture. France owes them, too,

Through the Monaco academy emerged footballers such as Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry, key men in the most successful of all France national teams. Arsene Wenger made his name as a coach there.

They were certainly an attractive enough proposition for Rybolovlev to extend, like Roman Abramovich, his range of business interests to include a football club; and, like the Qatari owners of Paris Saint-German, to become a proprietor with the means to transform French football.

He is in a hurry to have Monaco back in the top flight and from there to present an appealing case to the calibre of players he wants adorning the Stade Louis II.

A eagerness for prominent footballers is evident in the enthusiasm that Monaco have declared for David Beckham, now 37 and a free agent, to join them next month.

Monaco take on Le Mans this afternoon in second place in the division, three points behind Nantes but still in contention for the promotion regarded as a minimum requirement.

Ranieri, the 61-year-old coach formerly of Chelsea, Atletico Madrid, Valencia, Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan, among others, says he is enjoying the job, and appreciates the "tranquillity" of Monte Carlo and its surrounds after the "intensity" of the Italian club game.

He is, however, aware of the new pressure.

The poor recent run of results has been accompanied by talk of dressing-room divisions, friction between cliques formed among the 16 nationalities represented in the squad and confusion at Ranieri's team changes.

The endorsement on Monday from the bosses at La Turbie will have reassured Ranieri only to a degree. If Monaco veer too far from the summit of Ligue 2, the roubles and the royal approval will quickly be bestowed on another coach.

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