AS Monaco: European football's true millionaires' club
Champions League last 16: Arsenal v AS Monaco
- Emirates Stadium
- Wednesday, 25 February
- 19:45 GMT
- Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live; text commentary on BBC Sport website
The slogan on the jet-black team coach says it all: AS Monaco - like nowhere else.
This is a unique football club in a destination like no other. One in three of Monaco's 37,831 residents are millionaires and there are more billionaires per capita than anywhere else on earth. A penthouse in the principality's tallest building, Tour Odeon, is a cool £400m and a bottle of champagne can cost up to £330,000.
This is where the super-rich come to live tax-free, to bask in 2,500 hours of sunshine per year and where life expectancy - just short of 90 years old - is the highest on earth. The stereotypes are familiar: casinos, caviar, fast cars and a chopping cacophony of helicopter blades providing the soundtrack for endless lines of super yachts.
This week, however, talk in the lavish Monte Carlo hotels is about football - and one match in particular: Monaco's Champions League first leg last-16 clash with Arsenal at the Emirates.
A reunion with Arsene Wenger, who managed Monaco between 1987 and 1994 and is still revered, only adds to the glamour.
|Wenger at Monaco|
|Arsene Wenger won the French league title in his first season at the club - 1987-88. He added the French Cup in 1991. He also led them to the 1992 European Cup Winners' Cup final, losing 2-0 against Werder Bremen.|
The cover of the influential Monaco Hebdo magazine carries the headline "Le Match" and asks the question "peuvent-ils le faire?" - "Can they do it?"
The answer is being worked on in the mountains high above the breathtaking Cote d'Azur. Monaco's cliff-top training ground, La Turbie, is, like everything else here, unique.
The roads that snake up the mountain are as spectacular as they are perilous. Three pitches are carved out of the rock face.
On the field, Dimitar Berbatov, Ricardo Carvalho and Joao Moutinho are the faces which stand out. This time last year, James Rodriguez and Radamel Falcao were there, too. That followed a summer of vast spending, designed to re-establish Monaco as a superpower
Rodriguez and Falcao left the club in the summer when owner Dmitry Rybolovlev decided to rein in the spending. The Russian billionaire, who bought a majority stake in 2011, had lifted the club off its knees as it struggled near the bottom of France's second tier. They are now back playing among the European elite, having finished second in Ligue 1 behind Paris St-Germain last season.
Rybolovlev's right-hand man, Vadim Vasilyev, is Monaco vice-president.
"We could not have achieved what we have without that huge investment," Vasilyev says.
"We have had to scale it down more than we thought, mainly because of Financial Fair Play. We are still ambitious, however. We want to be an important player on the European scene and be associated with everything for which the principality of Monaco stands."
AS Monaco have always struggled to fill the Stade Louis II. It holds 18,000 - almost half the population of the state. This season's average attendance is just under 8,000. It was the case when Glenn Hoddle signed for Wenger's side in 1987 and when Monaco boasted a stable of French legends, such as Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit and Lilian Thuram. It was the same when coach Didier Deschamps led Les Rouge et Blanc to the Champions League final in 2004.
And yet, according to Vasilyev, Monaco has something that other clubs do not.
"We have our handicaps, the stadium attendance is one. But we have a fantastic name, a brand attached to us that is known throughout the world," he adds.
|Monaco's football history|
|Nickname: Les Rouge et Blanc (The Red and Whites)|
|Champions League finalists: 2004|
|Uefa Cup Winners' Cup finalists: 1992|
|French League titles: 7 (last win in 2000)|
|French Cups: 5 (last win in 1991)|
|French League Cups: 1 (in 2003)|
"People know Monaco because of the Formula 1 or from Princess Grace. People want to be associated with it and AS Monaco is the sports ambassador for the principality.
"Filling the stadium is an impossible challenge. We would need the newborns, the elderly, everyone. What helps is that our name is known on the internet, on social media. We have a big support in France, our away following is in the top five."
Much has changed since the Wenger era. Back then, the training ground boasted three showers. These days it has state-of-the-art medical facilities, luxury dressing rooms and a car park boasting £10m worth of shiny sports cars.
The squad is training in the February sun as it rises above the mountains. Berbatov ambles around the training pitch as only he can, yards behind his team-mates, body language screaming he would rather be walking.
Former Chelsea, Real Madrid and Porto defender Carvalho smiles broadly when asked to describe the Bulgarian.
"He is a player who does not speak too much to the squad," Carvalho says. "He doesn't speak French so talks a lot to me and Moutinho. He likes to laugh with us but stays quiet a lot. When he does have to speak on the field, to tell someone to do better, he can do it. He has the experience and respect of the players."
Berbatov does make time for the fans. He stops his sleek British sports car at the security barrier as he leaves the training ground. Autograph pads and those famous red and white shirts are signed. Two young boys ask him to stop for photographs. Berbatov holds his smile, eyes behind an expensive pair of sunglasses as the boys fumble nervously to unlock a camera phone. It takes time but his smile is fixed as he waits patiently for one and then the other to pose by the window.
The boys shout "merci, Dimitar" and the Bulgarian's car growls away down the hill.
For the millionaire footballer, Monaco has it all. Fast cars, beautiful weather, stunning beaches and endless venues in which to revel in the infamous party scene.
Carvalho was never interested in that lifestyle having moved with his wife and two children in May 2013 to join the newly-crowned second division champions.
Only a certain character can thrive on the field and live well off it. It is an issue of which the club is acutely aware when they identify targets or promote youngsters.
"We have to put the pressure on ourselves," Carvalho says. "We do not have huge crowds pushing us. Sometimes we are playing in front of 8,000 people so we need to be able to motivate ourselves and find that spirit and fight from within."
The Portuguese defender, along with the rest of the club's foreign players, lives in Monaco. The French players, who are not exempt from tax, choose to live across the border where, even for them, things are more affordable. A one-bedroom apartment in the principality can cost as much as £40,000-per-month in rent. Money talks.
It certainly did in the summer of 2013 when Carvalho, 36, moved as part of the £110m spending spree which stunned football.
At £45m from Atletico Madrid, Falcao was the biggest signing. He has since joined Manchester United on loan and Rodriguez went to Real Madrid for £59m.
Carvalho said: "They invested a lot in the summer I came but you cannot keep players who don't want to stay. For James, it was impossible to say no to Real Madrid. Falcao? He felt he deserved more.
"He wanted to play in the Premier League. He is 29 years old and wanted to try it. The club helped him go.
"This year we are improving again, winning more matches (they currently sit fourth, 11 points behind leaders Lyon). After James and Falcao left it was difficult. They were so important for us but now it has calmed down, we are a much better team that at the start of the season."
|AS Monaco's renaissance has prompted envy within French football. At a time when a new 75% tax rate for top earners was being enforced, the club were luring some of the world's best players with the incentive that tax would no longer be something about which to worry. If Monaco wanted to pay a foreign player £1m after tax, they would need to pay him £1.05m. Another French club would need to spend £3m to get the same result.|
Whether or not Manchester United take up a £43.2m option to sign Falcao on a permanent basis in the summer, Vasilyev is convinced the club's future lies with youth.
"Monaco is known for its academy, for its brilliant players." Vasilyev says. "Lilian Thuram and David Trezeguet are players that came from our academy and became great stars. This is part of our DNA. We have made it a priority to really take young talents from France."
The youth team are a sight to behold, the ball zipping around a half-sized pitch like an ice-hockey puck. The losing team in the five-a-side stand with their backs to the penalty spot, from where the winning team can take aim. Laughter fills the air. But there is respect. Every young player wishes visitors 'bonjour' and shakes hands.
However, the first team's attention is firmly focused on Arsenal.
Carvalho says Monaco have nothing to lose: "The pressure is on Arsenal. It is already a surprise for us to be at this stage. This is a dream game for our players. We respect Arsenal, we respect Wenger, but we have to forget the names on their shirts.
"We have to play our best in both games. People say such good things about Wenger from his time here and I, of course, know him from the Premier League. But we have to try to forget that and play our own game."
Sylvain Legwinski, the former Monaco and Fulham midfielder, is back at the Stade Louis II as a coach. He was 19 when Wenger handed him his Monaco debut. "He was a young man, a young manager," Legwinski says of Wenger. "But I could see the personality, the character and the charisma he had.
"He knows exactly what he wants. For my debut, I know I wasn't ready. Wenger had a lot of injuries and called for me at half-time. There is a lot of respect here for what he did and what he has achieved since."
In the hallway outside the home dressing room at Stade Louis II, there are images of Wenger lifting trophies alongside former players Glenn Hoddle and Mark Hateley.
"The fans do still talk about him," Vasilyev says. "Arsene is really respected here. This match and this coach have a special meaning to our supporters, to everyone who cares about Monaco Football Club. It will be emotional.
"A lot of people said maybe we could have drawn an easier team to play. I am happy about this draw because it is very interesting. It is football but it is much more than football. There is more for Arsenal to prove."
AS Monaco have come a long way in a short time. There is, though, a sense that football is unsure what the future holds for this club. A win at Arsenal would begin to provide compelling evidence that Monaco, even without Rodriguez and Falcao, is a club with which to be reckoned.
It may be some time before Monaco can fulfil their Russian owner's dream of winning the Champions League but, in the short term, this is a club and a place like nowhere else.