Royal connection the key to Monaco's prosperity

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Imagine a country whose population is half the average gate at Old Trafford, which has no national football team and very few football pitches.

The country covers one square mile of mostly steep slopes and rock and is populated by veteran pop stars (Ringo Starr, Shirley Bassey), retired tennis champions, racing drivers and other, shyer people whose vast wealth is less easily explained. The land is much too valuable to be spared for football pitches.

And yet this country can boast a professional football club which competes with the European élite: a club that has defeated the stars of Real Madrid and believes it can defeat the rouble billionaires of Chelsea to reach the final of the Champions' League.

L'Association Sportive de Monaco FC are a big, bizarre club in a small, bizarre country. Seven times champions of France, although not in France, Monaco have nurtured some of the most successful French coaches and footballers of the modern era: Arsène Wenger, Jean Tigana, Thierry Henry, Fabien Barthez, Emmanuel Petit, Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet. Foreign alumni include Glenn Hoddle and Mark Hateley.

And yet the team often plays to a stadium that is only a quarter full. The Stade Louis II, which resembles a giant, open-air opera house, built on top of a car park on land reclaimed from the Mediterranean, is capable of holding 35,400 people. It will be full for Chelsea's visit tonight. In the French First Division, even though they are second in the table, Monaco's average gate is 8,500. Of the 30,000 residents of Monaco, only 8,000 are actually Monegasques.

Bassey, Starr and the other shy billionaires are certainly not regulars at these matches. The surrounding French population turn out for the big games but prefer, on the whole, to support Nice or even Marseilles, 150 miles away.

So how do Monaco survive and even flourish? The standard answers are royalty and low taxes.

The club has long been a hobby of the Monegasque royal family. Prince Albert, the heir apparent, rarely misses a game, wearing his red and white club scarf. Prince Reinier, who is ailing, is mostly a stay-at-home fan these days.

In a country with no income tax and few taxes of any kind, it becomes relatively easy to attract footballing and managerial talent compared to the French clubs proper, who struggle with some of the highest taxes in Europe.

In truth, the story is rather more complicated than that. The Royal Palace controls the club but contributes less money than is generally imagined.

The French League, in which Monaco play, provides far less television revenue than the Spanish, Italian or English Leagues. There is little merchandising profit for a club with such a small fan base.

A short run of Europeless seasons after the departure of Henry, Trezeguet and Barthez pushed Monaco's finances into the red. In the close season last May, the club was briefly relegated to the Second Division for exceeding French football's limit on debt.

The figure was put officially at €53m (£35m) but was estimated to be more like €85m. The sentence was rescinded after a few weeks, when Prince Albert put together a consortium of local businessmen who promised to invest €25m in the club. The same consortium announced last week that it had taken its share of Monaco to 51 per cent.

The whole "crisis" was unnecessary, even stage-managed. Monaco-watchers in France believe that it was part of an elaborate strategy by Prince Albert to get rid of the long-time president of the club, Jean-Louis Campora.

Campora, a surgeon and leader of the country's political old guard, had already been ousted in February as the head of the tiny country's powerless parliament. This was also widely interpreted as a coup by Prince Albert, who wanted to install a younger generation of local politicians (ie his own friends).

The previous December, Campora - an honest man, much liked in the French football world - announced that he had found a saviour for the club. A Russian financial group, Fedcominvest, was willing to wipe out most of Monaco's debts.

The deal was vetoed by the royal family, on the grounds that Fedcominvest had doubtful friends in Russia. These doubts had not previously led the royal family to prevent Fedcominvest from operating in the Principality or acting as the shirt-sponsor for the football club.

Another bid, by an Italian consortium, was also rebuffed by the palace.

French football figures said that the Monaco royal family had deliberately made Campora's position untenable. He was told to look for foreign investors but also told that control of the club must remain in the hands of Monegasque interests and therefore ultimately the royal family.

In the end - as possibly programmed all along - Prince Albert came off the bench in extra-time and scored the financial goal to save the club that he so loves. Campora departed and the club's finances are now, it is said, closely monitored by the palace and the Principality's government.

One consequence - possibly intended, possibly not - was to give a much freer-hand in footballing matters to the club's coach, Didier Deschamps. Campora, like many French club presidents, had always controlled recruitment and expected to be consulted on team selection.

Since his departure, Deschamps has been more like a club manager in the old British tradition. There has been little money for recruitment but the former France, Juventus and Chelsea midfielder had already built-up a talented squad. Clear management and settled team selection has done wonders.

The question arises: can Monaco, with their still poorly finances, hold on to the better players for next season? Can they hold on to Deschamps, who is said to be coveted by his old club, Juventus? Prince Albert, supporter-and-fixer-in chief, issued a "hands off my players" warning last week. To make it stick, he may have to dip into his friends' pockets once again, and maybe even his own.