A new giant has started uprooting the landscape of European football. The story of this summer, more than anything else, has been that of AS Monaco asserting themselves in the transfer market with the assurance and success of a team which knows where it wants to go and has the means to get there. Monaco, clearly, are aiming for the very top of the game. They have already committed over £100m on players this season — Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho — and would be willing to spend nearly the same sum again on Cristiano Ronaldo. And this is ahead of their first season back in Ligue 1. Their ability to buy, once they are back in the Champions League, will be remarkable.
But this is the ambition now common at European clubs whose owners plough in so much of their own money. Like Chelsea, Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain before them, the lavish outside investment in Monaco is designed to take them to the summit of the sport. Money is certainly no stranger to Monaco, either the principality or the football club, and it must be mentioned that success is not new there either.
They are seven-times French champions, including under a young Arsène Wenger in the late 1980s, and lost a European Cup final as recently as 2004. The last few years, though, with relegation and then rebirth under new ownership, have been different. Russian billionaire Dmitri Rybolovlev — with a fortune estimated in the top 100 in the world, mainly through potassium mining company Uralkali — bought a two-thirds stake in December 2011. Monaco then were risking demotion into the third tier, but Rybolovlev immediately started buying players, helping to save the team from relegation. Even from Ligue 2, Monaco spent €11m (£9m) on Lucas Ocampos from River Plate, who has been excellent, and Denmark international Jakob Poulsen. Claudio Ranieri came in as coach and Monaco comfortably won the second tier, from where the club could start to disrupt the traditional order of things in the transfer market. Rybolovlev has always been willing to buy the best he could find.
He has bought properties in Florida and Hawaii from Donald Trump and Will Smith respectively. His 24-year-old daughter Ekaterina purchased an $88m Manhattan apartment in 2011 and, just two months ago, the Greek island Skorpios, where Jacquline Kennedy married Aristotle Onassis.
And so this summer, Monaco have signed players from the elite range of the European game. Falcao has been the best centre-forward in the world for the last few years, but Monaco — whose average attendance last season ranked somewhere between Southend United and Port Vale — beat Chelsea, Real Madrid and Manchester City to his signature.
Falcao will probably play ahead of James Rodriguez, his fellow Colombian international, who won three titles, one cup and a Europa League in three years at Porto. Even if Real refuse to sell Monaco Cristiano Ronaldo they have strength out wide, in Argentina’s Ocampos and Belgium’s Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, two thrilling teenage wingers.
Not every other French team is keen for Monaco to be able spend freely given their no income tax status. Paris Saint-Germain have to pay a 75 per cent top rate on Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s €14m net salary. Monaco, who pay Falcao roughly the same, do not.
So the Ligue 1 clubs tried to bar Monaco’s promotion into the top flight unless they moved into French tax territory. The French Football Federation tried to negotiate a solution whereby Monaco have to pay €200m over the next seven years, which is currently being challenged by Monaco in court.