A seagull following French football's sardine trawler
It's less than a decade since Monaco were Champions League finalists – but they're about to start their second successive season in France's second tier. Stuart Coleman reports on the fallen giants – and the familiar face hired to take them back up...
On a balmy May evening in 2004, Fernando Morientes scored Monaco’s fifth Champions League semi-final goal against Chelsea to secure his club’s first appearance in Europe's showpiece final. At that moment, the fans of one of Europe’s most glamorous clubs could scarcely have imagined that eight short years later they’d be solemnly preparing for their second season in France’s second tier.
Such a dramatic collapse – from the continent's pinnacle to a mid-table Ligue 2 finish in front of an average crowd of just 4,611 – has come with tumultuous boardroom activity, frequent managerial changes and desperate financial straits. But there are signs that better days may be coming back to Monaco.
HIGH-ROLLERS IN MONACO An enclave of style, symbolic of affluence, glamour and panache, the celebrated Principality is home to the only team in France’s professional leagues to hail from another country. The red and white shirts of AS Monaco match the heraldic colours of the reigning House of Grimaldi, and the club’s trophy haul unquestionably places them amongst the royalty of French football: seven championships and five Coupe de France victories leaves them comfortably in the upper echelon of successful clubs.
So how did this stalwart of the top flight, used to battling with big guns such as Marseille, PSG and Lyon, find itself in Ligue 2, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Châteauroux, Arles-Avignon and Stade Lavallois? To understand where Monaco are now, we should begin by rewinding 11 years to the summer of 2001.
France’s World Cup-winning captain Didier Deschamps took charge of Monaco in June 2001. Despite never having managed, the popular and successful midfielder took on the unenviable task of replacing legendary former player Claude Puel, whose contract had not been renewed despite having lead AS to their 7th, and still most recent, French title.
After a woeful first season Deschamps' side finished in a wholly disappointing 15th place on 39 points, just six above relegation. However, recently-installed club president Pierre Svara stuck by the young manager and was rewarded with a much-improved second-season performance: Monaco finished Ligue 1 runners-up in 2003. The following season, Deschamps achieved the remarkable by taking his team to an unlikely Champions League final against Jose Mourinho’s Porto, in a game between two of Europe’s brightest managerial prospects.
Morientes strikes at Stamford Bridge
While Lyon dominated domestically en route to an unprecedented seven consecutive French titles, it was Monaco who became the first French team to reach Europe's biggest game since Marseille beat Milan in 1993 – while captained by a certain Didier Deschamps.
UNSUSTAINABLE ECONOMICSBut the on-field success came at a price – literally. Under the new club president Svara, Monaco had paid unprecedentedly large large bonuses to its top players: 2003/04 was, financially speaking, the worst the club had ever experienced.
Svara, who had a background in economics, was supposed to have brought stability, but he left his role after one year. His departing comments that "Our third place in Ligue 1, our European campaign, the restoration of our financial situation and the level of competence shown by everyone involved last season allow Monaco to look forward to a bright future" displayed a worryingly blinkered point of view and remarkable hubris.
Svara's replacement, the bullish Michel Pastor, made things little better. While Pastor strived behind the scenes to turn around the club’s crippling debts, he could persuade neither Deschamps nor his star players to stay for long on the Mediterranean coast.
Partly that was due to cost-cutting, as men who had made their names sought their fortune elsewhere, but the imposing Pastor didn't help with his idiosyncratic approach to man-management – as summed after a 2-2 draw with unfancied Ajaccio, when he boomed "That was catastrophic. What they need is a good bollocking. I'll be heading to the training ground first thing Monday morning to give them just that."
Deschamps left the club less than five months after the Champions League final, having, understandably, fallen out with Pastor and the board.
Pastor (far left) and Deschamps before the latter left
The events at board level since have been extraordinary. As the team of 2004 was dismantled piece by piece, Pastor managed to motor through six managers in four years and finally left under a cloud in 2008.
DECLINE & FALLSvara was replaced by the calming presidential presence of Jerome de Bontin. The Chicago-based financier helped steady the ship, with a focus on the distressing financial situation: he knocked 40% off the wage bill and made a €16m profit on transfers before handing over to Etienne Franzi in 2009.
Despite the off-field turbulence, the club had achieved consistent, if unspectacular, mid-table league finishes of 10th, 9th, 12th and 11th from 2006 to 2009. In the space of five years, the fans had seen the club go from the Champions League final to regular mid-table mediocrity – but things were about to get worse.
Franzi failed to pursue the ruthlessly assiduous approach of his predecessor, spending many millions on the less than fruitful Eidur Gudjohnsen (9 games, 0 goals) and the striker Dieumerci Mbokani, who arrived for €7M despite having only a moderately successful spell in the provincial confines of the Belgian league to his name.
Monaco’s unsettled fans were understandably nervous as to the hectic goings-on at their club, and the ever-present sense of impending disaster began to build after the worryingly poor start to the 2010/11 season.
Following a humiliating January 2011 Coupe de France defeat to amateur outfit Chambery, coach Guy Lacombe was unceremoniously sacked by an enraged and increasingly desperate Franzi. The cup loss was symptomatic of the general malaise that was affecting the beleaguered Monegasque club.
Despite the best efforts of Lacombe’s replacement Laurent Banide, who had proved a capable steward during his previous brief period in charge in 2006/7, Monaco slipped inexorably into the drop zone. The coup de grace came on the final day of the 2010/11 season, with Lyon’s 2-0 victory at the Stade Louis II finally condemning Monaco to the nightmare of relegation.
Devastation as the side are relegated
ADAPTING TO A NEW LEVELFor the fans, the initial burning sting of relegation eventually fades into a dull but constant ache. A pain that remains under the surface, a lingering reminder of the disappointment and shame in suffering the humiliating drop. And the summer of 2011 did little to encourage the Monaco faithful that their troubles would be eased in their first season in Ligue 2 for decades.
Big clubs often handle relegation poorly: the shock of going down, that previously unthinkable notion, is at odds with the history and expectations of a team like Monaco. Like Leeds United in 2004, Monaco were relegated under a cloud of financial unsustainability and were subsequently particularly hard hit by their failure to remain in the top flight.
With a tiny average crowd, the club needed massive cuts to even continue running as a legitimate business. The consequence of this financial imposition was that the ratio of players leaving to arriving was damagingly one-sided, with 23 professionals leaving and just 12 taking their places. Perhaps unsurprisingly, considering the enormous upheaval, Monaco did not adapt well to the second flight, winning none of their first six games.
However, in December 2011, Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev took control of the club. After years of financial mismanagement, the appearance of an incredibly wealthy patron as the club languished in Ligue 2 was received with a heady mixture of pleasure and relief by many fans; here surely was Monaco’s ticket back to the big time.
Whilst ostensibly fitting the stereotype created by Roman Abramovich of a ludicrously rich businessman in need of a rather substantial plaything on which to fritter his vast wealth, Rybolovlev, as a long-term resident of the Principality, is thought to consider his investment as a chance to bring prestige back to both the club and the state.
The run-down coach Banide, hit hard by the relegation of the club for whom he had spent 16 years coaching, was replaced by former player Marco Simone, who guided the team out of the relegation zone to a solid 8th-place finish. Even so, Simone departed the Stade Louis II in May as Rybolovlev attempted to bring a manager with more experience and greater pulling power to the club.
CLAUDIO'S SILVER LININGEnter the Tinkerman. In Britain, the popular image of Claudio Ranieri is that of an avuncular, idiosyncratic gentleman, his time at Chelsea characterised by constant changes to the starting XI as he strove to rotate personnel while chasing various trophies.
Under Ranieri, Chelsea changed from cup contenders to mega-rich league chasers – mainly through the arrival of Roman Abramovich three years into the Italian's reign: when Monaco defeated Chelsea in that Champions League semi-final, Ranieri's number was up as Abramovich moved for Mourinho. But eight years later, another Russian billionaire has invested his faith in the Italian to complete the seemingly modest yet potentially more difficult task of putting Monaco back on the map.
Claudio prepares for another promotion push
Ranieri comes with vast experience of European football, having managed an impressive list of some of the continent’s biggest names: Valencia, Atletico Madrid, Chelsea, Parma, Roma and Juventus. But more importantly, the Italian brings a history of promotion, having achieved the feat three times in Italy.
Rybolovlev has already started to invest in the playing side, with the recent acquisitions of midfielder Delvin N’Dinga from Auxerre, exciting Moroccan left-winger Nabil Dirar from Club Bruges and the experienced Danish international Jakob Poulsen from Midtjylland, for a combined fee of over €13M.
To borrow Barcelona's motto, AS Monaco is more than a club. The principality has a fiercely proud population that enjoys the glamorous reputation their country has cultivated. From the speed and style of the Formula 1 grand prix to the status as a home of the affluent and the pomp of the royal family, everything about Monaco suggests the tradition of success.
The recent downfall of the football team is not only a great shame for the loyal fans, but a knock to the Principality’s reputation. If Claudio Ranieri and Dmitry Rybolovlev can return this much-loved club to its former great heights, then French and European football should be grateful for the return of the unique charm of les Rouge et Blanc.
Stuart Coleman is editor of The Football Diaries
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