Monaco vs Bayer Leverkusen: How Financial Fair Play ended Monaco's dream of Cristiano Ronaldo leading Arsene Wenger's side out

Monaco face Bayern Leverkusen in the Champions League tonight

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The Independent Football

Had Dmitry Rybolovlev got everything he wanted, Monaco would be led out by Cristiano Ronaldo on Tuesday night, with Arsène Wenger in the dugout.

Instead, they begin their Champions League campaign at home to Bayer Leverkusen this evening stripped of almost all of their stars. Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez have been sold, coach Claudio Ranieri has been sacked and Monaco now look remarkably average, second from bottom of Ligue 1 with four points from their first five games.

If last season was all about Monaco’s rising ambition, this one has seen the project start to unravel. The dream of summer 2013, when Monaco spent €150m on players, has faded. It is unlikely now that the combination of Rybolovlev’s fortune and the principality’s favourable tax regime will turn them into one of Europe’s best teams.

Rybolovlev’s right-hand man Vadim Vasilyev, the vice-president of the club, insisted the focus is now on the academy and admitted that the “tactics and the timeframe for the project have been amended”.

French newspaper Libération called it “La Bérézina de Rybolovlev”, a reference to the defeat of Napoleon’s army on the retreat from Moscow in November 1812. It has certainly been a difficult year for the Russian-born billionaire, who in May was ordered by a Swiss court to pay his ex-wife Elena £2.6bn in the biggest divorce settlement of all time, although legal action is ongoing.

 

Rybolovlev is still very rich, of course, thanks to his potassium mining empire. This is a man whose daughter Ekaterina bought an $88m New York penthouse overlooking Central Park in 2011, around the same time that he acquired a two-thirds stake in Monaco. He has bought property in Florida from Donald Trump – for $100m – and in Hawaii from Will Smith. Last year, Ekaterina bought Skorpios, the Greek island on which Aristotle Onassis married Jacqueline Kennedy in 1968.

But what Rybolovlev found out this year is that buying Monaco’s way into the European football elite would be harder than he had imagined. Paris Saint-Germain have managed it, but they can rely on crowds of 45,000 at the Parc des Princes, as well as lucrative commercial deals with Emirates Airline, beIN Sports and the Qatar Tourism Authority. At Monaco, there had been hopes for gates of 14,000 last season, with James and Falcao on show, but they averaged just 11,653, the second-lowest in Ligue 1.

What this meant is that Monaco would struggle to generate the revenue required to satisfy Uefa’s Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. “We thought that with the stars we signed, sponsors would come,” Vasilyev told L’Equipe this month. “We have realised that will take time.”

Without the commercial revenue they were hoping for, Monaco were almost certain to break Uefa’s restrictions. The initial expectation was that FFP punishments would only be sporting sanctions, such as point deductions or squad restrictions. When PSG and Manchester City were given conditional €60m (£49m) fines this summer, it became clear that Monaco might face a penalty of the same size. Suddenly, spending heavily on new players became less attractive.

In January, Monaco were hit by another unanticipated cost when they agreed to pay the French League €50m (£41m) to make up for their tax-haven status. The Ligue de Football Professionel had initially tried to restrict membership to teams based in France and Rybolovlev reluctantly agreed to pay, despite the feeling that the club had been unjustly shaken down.

“This expenditure was not foreseen in our budget and was again on top of our investment,” said Vasilyev. “Had this been known to [Rybolovlev] at the time he was taking over the club, he might have thought differently. He came in good faith and he is being punished.”

It was those two costs that made the whole project too expensive to pursue in the same way this summer. So James was sold to Real Madrid for €80m (£63m), striker Emmanuel Rivière went to Newcastle United, Falcao was loaned to Manchester United and Eric Abidal released. A move for Victor Valdes was cancelled when the Barcelona goalkeeper injured his knee.

Rather than high-profile replacements – Monaco had spoken to Ronaldo last year and offered him an annual tax-free salary of €20m – they bought defender Aymen Abdennour from Toulouse, midfielder Tiemoué Bakayoko from Rennes and got goalkeeper Maarten Stekelenburg on loan from Fulham. Ranieri was replaced by Leonardo Jardim, formerly of Sporting Lisbon.

There is some hope that Jardim will get the best out of Portuguese compatriot Joao Moutinho, Monaco’s one remaining star, but the evidence so far this season suggests not. They return to the Champions League on Tuesday night, but without much fanfare.

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