Rich Man's Plaything
The inside story of how Monaco reinvented themselves, again
Vadim Vasilyev’s schedule is extremely tight but he couldn’t be happier to be so busy. On Wednesday 19 April 2017, TV cameras from all over the world caught the vice-president of AS Monaco together with Prince Albert II and Dmitry Rybolovlev, the club owner, in the VIP zone of Stade Louis II during the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final victory over Borussia Dortmund. On the Thursday he flew to Paris to take part in the French league’s administrative council meeting, to which he was elected for the first time last November. On Friday he was in Nyon at the Champions League semi-final draw, and there he had a time to talk. It was our fifth conversation in three years.
In May 2015, when we first met, very few people had heard of Kylian Mbappé. But that was when Vasilyev concluded tough negotiations with the rising star of Monaco’s academy (he had been there since 2013) to persuade him to sign his first professional contract. The competition was fierce. “Not everything was OK for him in the academy,” Vasilyev said. “His family and Kylian himself were ready to leave the club. I had to hold a lot of difficult meetings. As a result, we felt a mutual trust both with the player and his parents. They believed me and decided to stay at AS Monaco.”
Vasilyev confirmed that Paris Saint Germain and Arsenal both offered Mbappé a much bigger signing-on bonus than Monaco at that time. “It was incomparable,” he said. “But Mbappé has very smart parents who really think about their son’s future. They made the best choice for his sporting career, and now the whole world is witnessing it.”
The result is obvious. At the age at which Cristiano Ronaldo had scored five senior goals and Lionel Messi just one, Mbappé has more than 20, including four in four knock-out games in the Champions League. But Vasilyev is not anxious to confirm my definition of him as a “new genius”. “I certainly regard as very possible that in the future he will become the best footballer in the world,” he said. “He has everything to achieve this. We never doubted his phenomenal qualities. But both the head coach [Leonardo Jardim] and I are surprised how fast he is progressing. It brings us joy!
“Despite huge recent media pressure, despite the fact that the whole world is praising him, Kylian remains a modest young man and carries this burden amazingly. He has never shown a single sign of arrogance, he hasn’t ‘put on a crown’ and he keeps working hard to achieve new goals. Knowing him and his family, I'm sure that no ‘star fever’ is waiting for him.”
Is he better off staying at Monaco for a couple more seasons before joining a super-club? “For sure,” Vasilyev said, “for the development of his career it's better if Mbappé stays in Monaco. Our project today is in many ways built around him. We decided that we'd calmly discuss the future with the player and his parents. But we'll do it after the season. Now we’re negotiating not only about Mbappé but also about other players.”
There is no buy-out clause in Mbappé's contract so news such as Mbappé’s meeting with Zinedine Zidane doesn’t make Vasilyev nervous. “Unfortunately, it's a part of the football business,” he said. “We cannot prohibit anybody from talking to any of our players. The main thing is that Mbappé is a Monaco player. Whoever talks with him, we consider it calmly, because we are confident in ourselves and in our project.”
They have a right to be confident. In the summer of 2015 Monaco sold players for record money – more than €200million. More than half of the young team that had reached Champions League quarter-final, beating Arsenal in the second round, went to other clubs. Anthony Martial’s transfer to Manchester United for €50m, rising to a possible €80m with bonuses, Vasilyev confirmed – was arguably the biggest deal of that window.
Nobody could have imagined that in less than two years Monaco, still with Jardim as their coach, would exceed that European achievement and compete with Paris St-Germain for the French title. It’s a reality that would have seemed even more incredible five years ago. In December 2011 AS Monaco were sold by the House of Grimaldi, which retained a 33% stake, to the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev. At that time, the club that had reached the Champions League final in 2004 was trailing at the bottom of Ligue 2.
Rybolovlev, Vasilyev told me in 2015, “is a resident of Monaco, he has lived here for many years and he loves football very much. That's why he didn't hesitate when there was a chance to lead the club. Monaco at that moment were in a distressing situation, in serious danger of relegation to the third division. Apparently, Prince Albert II decided there was a need for drastic changes, otherwise the consequences could have been disastrous. I had to remind a group of fans about that at the beginning of the [2014-15] season when they protested about the sales of [Radamel] Falcao and James [Rodríguez]. Some of them even demanded refunds on their season tickets.
“I met them and asked, ‘Do you remember what was happening here a few years ago?’
“‘Yes, yes, we remember and appreciate it,’ they said, and there was no more conflict.”
Before buying Monaco, Rybolovlev had suggested he was looking at the possibility of buying Manchester United. “I know one thing,” Vasilyev said. “He had a box at Old Trafford. He flew to Manchester United games very frequently and sometimes I joined him.”
Rybolovlev doesn't have a box at Old Trafford any more. Since he bought Monaco he has been a fan of only one team in the world, and it's not Amkar from his native city of Perm in the Ural mountains. Rybolovlev's mother has become one of Monaco’s most devoted fans and won’t miss a single game.
One of the current Monaco staff, Vasilyev’s advisor, the Belgian Filips Dhondt, who was coordinator of the Belgian half of Euro 2000, told me that “when we arrived at the club it was almost dead. It had no commercial or marketing department, nothing.” Prince Albert decided that situation could no longer continue: this, after all, is a club that has been graced by the likes of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Jürgen Klinsmann, Sonny Anderson and Fabian Barthez. The solution was to sell the club to a foreigner.
Vasilyev himself is an old friend of Rybolovlev. He never worked in Russian football and has no plans to do so. “There are so many things to do for the building and developing of our project here that I never thought about it,” he said
“My route into football is not very traditional. I'm a graduate of MGIMO (the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, one of the most prestigious Russian universities) with a specialty in international economic relations. I worked in different organisations from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia to some big international trade companies. I had my own business. I was invited into football by President Rybolovlev, whom I’d known for many, many years, and I worked for him. We met in 1995, when I was working in the international trade of fertilisers and he became the owner of Uralkali [a Russian potash producer and exporter].
Rybolovlev was unhappy at how the club had been run before. Vasilyev initially arrived as an advisor to the president, then after three months became sports director and eight months later was appointed as an executive.
Vasilyev has never played the game professionally and couldn't say he was a real fan when he was young. He remembers how impressed he was seeing a Milan v Inter derby at San Siro sometime in the early 2000s and how that gave him an understanding of football at the highest level. But his education, his understanding of business and his way of thinking allowed him to feel comfortable in the world of football.
His popularity in Monaco should not be underestimated. Three years ago, I attended the annual friendly Prince Albert organises between Formula One drivers and global celebrities such as Novak Djoković. When spectators saw Vasilyev, whether they were children or adults in formal dress, they greeted him and asked for a photograph or an autograph. He is recognised beyond the narrow world of football.
Long before football, Vasilyev had lived in Monaco, working there in the late nineties as a vice-president of Fedcom, a fertiliser company that had been a sponsor of Monaco for more than 20 years before his arrival. Its owner, the Russian billionaire Alexey Fedorychev, still lives in Monaco, and there were reports in 2002 that he had made an unsuccessful attempt to buy the club.
“No, I didn't want to buy the club,” Fedorychev said when I met him aboard his yacht in 2015. “We just helped Monaco, who were not in an easy situation, to give financial guarantees so they could play in the French league. l support football and tennis in Monaco with all the energy I have. We are like family with Vadim Vasilyev, although I do not always agree with him. For example, I worry he has overdone it with the sales of Martial, [Geoffrey] Kondogbia, [Layvin] Kurzawa, etc.”
But Vasilyev was vindicated: Monaco’s academy and scouting network allowed the sold players to be replaced. As a club president, Rybolovlev appears more effective than Suleiman Kerimov, to whom he sold Uralkali in 2010. His investments at Anzhi Makhachkala became notorious as he signed the likes of Samuel Eto’o, Roberto Carlos and Willian, but he sold off all the big stars in the summer of 2014 and got rid of the club altogether at the end of 2016. Its owner now is the Dagestani businessman Osman Kadiev, and the team, having been relegated and promoted again, lies in mid-table in the Russian Premier League.
Rybolovlev, by contrast, has his team flourishing in what is widely regarded as Europe’s fifth-strongest league and scoring hatfuls of goals as they do so. It’s a long way from the situation two years ago when English newspapers joked about Monaco parking the yacht before their Champions League tie against Arsenal. What’s most astonishing, perhaps, is that the changed style has been adopted by the same manager.
When he first arrived in Ligue 1, Rybolovlev acted like any other Russian oligarch, spending big money on the likes of Falcao, James Rodríguez, João Moutinho and Ricardo Carvalho, much of the business conducted through the agent Jorge Mendes. Falcao was the start of it, having been persuaded to join the club by the owner himself. “If you want to initiate an ambitious project quickly, either in football or business, investments are always needed,” Vasilyev said. “If you need to run a project very quickly, you need serious investments. The possibility of acquiring Falcao was a unique chance, because players of his calibre rarely join projects which are just starting out. Before his transfer, such investments were not planned.
“Falcao didn't want to go to the new project blindly. He wanted to know whom he’d play with. James and João Moutinho were the two players that he wanted to see in the team. Radamel was the most important signing and, of course, we gave him the most attention. For example, sometimes we went to dinner with him and his wife.
“After that many footballers who had regarded a possible move to Monaco with caution found the decision much simpler. The gamble that Falcao's arrival would have an impact on other high-quality transfers and allow us to get to a different level worked. We moved from Ligue 2 to the Champions League in a year.”
Claudio Ranieri became manager that season, immediately leading the club to second in the table. But the following summer the situation changed radically. Monaco were warned by Uefa for violating financial fair play (FFP) regulations. There were two levels of sanction: the club were allowed to include only 22 players in their squad for the following season and it had to pay a fine of €1million over three years. The club signed an agreement with Uefa to present a more balanced budget.
So, was the decision to sell James to Madrid and loan Falcao to Manchester United – Manchester City might have bought him but they too were hit by Uefa sanctions – conditioned by the FFP ruling? “Yes,” Vasilyev said. “When we saw what the punishments PSG and Man City had been given, we asked ourselves if we were ready to suffer strict Uefa sanctions. The president decided: no. Our business would have to become more viable.”
Luckily for Monaco, Madrid made an offer for James that made him, at the time, one of the five most expensive players in history. Madrid invited Vasilyev to James’s official presentation, hinting at the good relationship between the clubs.
After the previous summer, in 2014 everybody waited for what would come next. Cristiano Ronaldo? Lionel Messi? But Vasilyev publicly stated there would be no repeat of the previous year’s investment. Monaco bosses had concluded that the big-spending model was not essential, even if Vasilyev has such a good relationship with Ronaldo that when he suffered dengue fever, the forward sent him a signed Madrid shirt.
Some things at Monaco will never change, like the red and white shirt halved diagonally, which was designed by Grace Kelly, Prince Albert’s mother. But some things will. It was decided that Ranieri needed replacing. He maintained a relationship with the club’s leadership, though, and coached one of the teams in that friendly between Formula One drivers and celebrities. At half-time I saw him approach Vasilyev and they spoke for a few minutes in a friendly way. Afterwards, I asked Ranieri if he remained on good terms with Rybolovlev.
“Yes,” he said, “and with Mr Abramovich after I left Chelsea. I don't transfer professional things to personal relations. At the end of the day, an owner should make everything clear from the very beginning. In this respect I didn't have any questions to either Russian owner. It was easy to work with them, they bought me good players. You can only do something with good players.
“Rybolovlev said that I did a good job but they wanted changes. It was OK with me. Yes, Monaco took second place in the French league, but if the bosses decided things this way, that's the way it should be. No problem”
“We maintained good relations, sometimes calling each other,” Vasilyev confirmed. “It was hard situation, especially for him. But the most important thing is that we were able to keep normal personal relations and that is very valuable.”
At that time, having been taken on and then fired by the Greece national team, Ranieri could hardly have believed what was awaiting him at Leicester. As it turned out, him leaving Monaco was manifestly the best thing for both parties.
I asked Vasilyev in August 2016 what Leicester’s league title meant for football. “It means that football is a great game and not everything in it depends on money,” he said. “And it gives a reason to dream to thousands of other teams, coaches, players, kids, that they can win any title and get to the absolute top.”
The Monaco vice-president didn’t know then that, less than a year later, the same words could be applied to his own club. “Nobody could have understood at the time why we went for the little-known Leonardo Jardim,” he said. “But for the transformed project we needed a manager of a different type to Ranieri. We needed a man who was ready to work with youngsters, to raise them to another level. I can admit that the search for such a specialist started even before the end of the season. Because we realised the inevitability of our change.”
Was Jardim a Mendes suggestion? He denied it. “It was important for us that a manager should not be forced to work with young players, but that these values should be sincerely accepted by him,: Vasilyev said in 2015. “I heard about Jardim from a person whom I respect a lot. We included him in the list of potential candidates and started to analyse.
“We preferred a person from a Mediterranean culture. It was desirable for him to speak French. Leonardo didn’t speak it fluently but he had some basic knowledge. Also it was important for him to understand: in our club a head coach only coaches the team; he doesn’t form sports policy. Of course, he participates in the process of selecting players but his word is not final. He has the right of veto for some players but so far Jardim has never used it.
“In his first season Bernardo Silva stepped up to a new level and I connect that exactly with Jardim's work, as I do the new ability of Fabinho to play in a second position – central midfield.”
The start was slow but Monaco’s bosses were patient. They understood that Jardim needed time to adapt but they also realised that one of the problem was that the players were sceptical about the future of the project.
After five weeks, Monaco were 19th in the table and fans were angry, asking “Leonardo Who?”. At some moments Jardim seemed discouraged. Pre-season had been perfect. Monaco had drawn with Valencia but had won every other game, including beating Arsenal. But the start of the season was awful and it was very important to give the coach confidence that they were not planning to change anything because of that. So Vasilyev spoke with Jardim, making clear, “We are in the same boat. There are two options: we can work together for the season or we can both be fired.”
“Many people thought at that time that Leonardo didn't have charisma,” Vasilyev said in 2015. “But we knew that he had it. I see how he is progressing in communication both with the team and with the media, and I'm happy about that.
“The very important moment was the final Champions League group-stage game, at home against Zenit St Petersburg. The terrible pressure caused our very fearful performance in the first half. At half-time, for the first time in my career, I entered the dressing-room and tried to raise the fighting spirit of the team. I told the players that they had to relax and be themselves – but in more emotional terms.
“I demanded they forget they were playing the decisive game of the group. It was pure improvisation, Leonardo didn't have a clue that I'd do it. And later he was grateful for that and told me. Most often, Leonardo knows how to fix a situation but this was an exception.”
Monaco won the game 2-0 and after that the team’s direction was only upward. They came third in the league and beat Arsenal in the second round of the Champions League. Even before the end of the season, the club announced that they would extend Jardim’s contract to 2019.
“We achieved even more than expected in the Champions League,” Vasilyev told me in 2015. “But there is a more important thing. We are sure that the coach fits perfectly into our philosophy and no result of a single game could influence that.”
I spoke with Jardim in May 2015. “My role model is Alex Ferguson who built the modern Manchester United and successfully worked there for a quarter of century,” he said. “And also – I won't be original – José Mourinho. He’s had success in every country he’s worked in. We know each other but we are not close friends, not like with André.” Jardim gets on extremely will with Villas-Boas, having worked in central Portugal at the same time, Villas-Boas at Académica and Jardim at Beira Mar.
“To become a top coach, it's not obligatory to play at a serious level,” Jardim went on. “A footballer has an individual approach, a coach has a collective one. Of course, it's good when a coach has a rich playing experience but it's far from decisive. I'm going up step by step. My career started from work with youth teams. Then there were such good clubs as Braga, Olympiakos and Sporting. Now it's Monaco which is one of the most ambitious projects in Europe. I always want to go forward and I see that with Monaco it's possible.
“Before taking over Monaco, I had an offer from Russia. But for various reasons I chose Monaco. I have good professional relations [with Rybolovlev and Vasilyev] and I appreciate it. Monaco have an efficient organisation which is very important in football. At the beginning of the season, things were not going smoothly but the club management said from the first day that they believe in me and my work. They didn't change their position throughout the season, and that helped a lot.
“I think I'm a typical man from Madeira – hard working and ambitious. I was born in Venezuela. I’m the son of an immigrant and, when I became an adult, I went to another country to earn my living. I worked in Greece with Olympiakos and it helped me.
“Of course, you can build a team buying mature expensive players. It's easier. But Monaco have other principles. We will take young players and develop them into stars. I like this approach more. It fully matches my personal ideas. I worked at Sporting in the same way and having plenty of young players didn't prevent us coming second and getting into the Champions League.”
Two years on, the results of that faith in youth are obvious. The emergence of the likes of Thomas Lemar and Kilyan Mbappé suggest that the system is working extremely successfully, perhaps even better than before.
During the 2015-16 season there were reports that Zenit wanted to replace Villas-Boas with his friend, supposedly offering €5m a year. I asked Vasilyev if it were true. “The truth is that there was real interest from Zenit,” he said. “The club contacted us in the early spring . We answered that we were not ready to let go a coach with a long-term contract. But even before that, Jardim himself had come to us, showing himself as a very decent person. He had learned about the St Petersburg offer a bit earlier. We sat down, talked and made sure that he saw his future with AS Monaco.”
Monaco lost 6-1 to Lyon at the end of the 2015-16 season, a result that gave Lyon second place in the final standings and meant the Monegasques had to play in the play-off round of the Champions League. “Of course, it was a more than painful blow,” Vasilyev said. “But the fate of a coach shouldn't be decided because of one game. Even this kind of a game. Of course, after that we took some time to think but after analysing everything we stuck with Jardim.”
Something Jardim said in our interview explains a lot about the dramatic change that took Monaco from being a defensive side two years ago to being one of the most attacking in Europe. “I believe in an evolutionary approach,” he said. “When a team is just starting to build, you obviously have to start from the defence. Moreover, several young players didn't have any experience of playing in the first XI before. But later we started to risk more and to play more attacking football – especially at home in front of our supporters.”
Now it's clear that was more than just words. From the start of 2016-17 Monaco changed their formation to 4-4-2. At the beginning, Falcao and Valère Germain were the front two, but as soon as Mbappé started to shine, he came in as Falcao’s partner. Jardim proved himself equally capable of working with stars and youth.
When Falcao returned after a disappointing two years in England, Jardim named him as one of four captains. Falcao is ‘senior captain’, with Germain (who scored against Monaco while on loan at Nice last season, didn’t celebrate and was welcomed back), Fabinho and the goalkeeper Danijel Subašić as his deputies. Jardim’s idea was to give more of his squad responsibility. He decides before each game who will take the armband.
So was the change of style Jardim’s idea or did the club encourage him? “The club wanted it,” Vasilyev told me in November 2016. “We wanted to see a more attacking and entertaining game, which entertains our supporters. I always said that both openly and privately. Now with the comeback of Falcao and Germain, overall with our current squad there are all the conditions for the coach to bring this desire into life.”
What of Jardim’s future? In 2015 he told me, “My professional career started only five years ago. All this time I've tried to grow, to coach at a higher level. That's why, when I got an offer from Monaco, I accepted it right away. Do I want to work at a higher level? The problem is that there are not many teams that outclass Monaco. You can count them on your fingers. Now all my thoughts are about my current club.”
In the two years since, all that has changed is Jardim's reputation. Before Monaco he changed clubs pretty frequently: one season each at Braga and Sporting, and even less at Olympiakos where he walked out with his side 10 points clear at the top of the table. But three seasons at Monaco have shown consistent development. I asked Jardim in May 2015 if he could imagine himself founding an Alex Ferguson-style empire and why he had never worked anywhere for a long time, but he corrected me. “That's not right,” he said. “I worked with Camacha [a Portuguese third-division club where Jardim was an assistant for three years and then head coach for five] for eight years. So, why not?”
“We have two more years with him under contract,” Vasilyev told me in April 2017. “I think Leonardo likes it here and he'll stay with us. Jardim is a very talented coach who is able to change style depending on the players who are in the team. His two Monacos are really very different. He is a specialist of the highest level.”
Despite all the positives, Monaco face certain obstacles that prevent them generating the same income as other top European sides – despite their favourable tax status. “We have a special economic model,” Vasilyev told Russian sports business students in November 2016. “It's connected with such objective factors as, for example, the limited size of Monaco as a territory. 20 minutes from it one way is Italy where few people care about French football. 20 minutes another way is Nice with its own club. You look forward and see the sea. You look behind and see mountains. So, our fan base, as we have counted it, is 100,000 people maximum. So, in percentage terms, that 9-10,000 come regularly to our games is good. For the big games – PSG, Champions League knockouts – the stadium is full. But we can’t count on match-day revenues to be successful.”
“That's why we have to work hard at searching for and developing young talent. When the time comes, we sell them, and Leonardo Jardim is ready for that. Moreover, he is focused on developing the abilities of young players. Our full budget is €160 million and transfer income is a significant part of it. But some time ago we set a world record, receiving about €200m and this season we have concentrated on keeping the team together and getting a result with it. So far this approach is paying off.
“Without transfer income we would have been losing money anyway, with it we are self-sufficient and even making a small profit. Yes, it's a risky policy. Real Madrid and Barcelona have certain and guaranteed income they can count on. They have only the risk of sports results: as we see, money doesn't decide everything. Our risks are higher. But we don't have any other option if we want to be successful.”
The best example is Anthony Martial who was bought at the age of 17 from Lyon for €5m and sold at the age of 19 for at least €50m. Now Rybolovlev and Vasilyev rarely take a risk but they bought Bernardo Silva from Benfica for €16m and now he is worth much more.
Monaco also rely on their academy. 22 of its graduates are currently playing in the top five leagues in Europe, with a further 38 elsewhere in Europe. Fifa’s rankings suggest it is the eighth-most productive in the world.
Monaco’s problem is infrastructure, because in Monaco every square metre has a golden price. Their training ground is in the French village of La Turbie on a mountain 480m above sea level. The top of the mountain is even higher. Once an assistant coach saw a man with a binoculars up there looking down at training. There’s only one way back down the mountain, so Monaco’s officials waited for him. It proved a false alarm: the mysterious observer was just a German tourist.
Not many clubs in Europe train in one country and play in another. The stadium has a capacity of just 18,500. The Stade Louis II with its nine arches, home to the Uefa Super Cup between 1998 and 2012, may be recognisable but it too is small. “The land for construction was conquered from the sea,” Filips Dhondt explained. “During this process the same stone was used which had been cut from the mountain in La Turbie to build the training ground. Recently we managed to cut 300 more square meters from the rock, which required investment. But even so there is space only for two and a half pitches because in Monaco the mountains start right by the sea. For example, Chelsea have 32 pitches.”
There are other curiosities about the stadium. Any Monegasque citizen, or anybody with permanent residency, can use the track there for a membership fee (between €200 and €300 a year). The only restriction is that it can’t be used in the two days before a competitive game or on the day after.
Monaco cannot remove the running track because the arena belongs to the House of Grimaldi, which has designated the Louis II, the only stadium in the country, as a multi-sport venue. As well as athletics, judo, gymnastics, volleyball, basketball and swimming are all practiced there, while the press conference room doubles as a fencing hall. On the concourses there is only one food outlet, but the club can do little about that: there is no space to increase kitchen capacity. And for all Monte Carlo’s reputation for glamour, the fence demarcating the VIP area is covered in rust. There are limited corporate facilities and the press box is basic, yet in other ways the Louis II lives up to the principality’s reputation. Monaco, for instance, aid recovery by the use of coloured lights. The likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djoković and Sergey Bubka are regularly seen at the stadium, while Usain Bolt trains there alongside those members paying their €200 a year.
Realistically, though, reconstruction is essential. “Several years ago there was no thought of that,” Vasilyev said. “But finally, after we reached the Champions League quarter-final [in 2015], it became possible. Many important people from the state of Monaco went to London and saw the Emirates. Now everybody understands that our stadium is outdated and the idea of modernisation is approved in principle.
“The Monaco government has created working group which listened to our suggestions. It's impossible to build a totally new arena in Monaco. But it's clear that the Louis II doesn't match many criteria of Uefa and the French Football Federation so it's clear that the reconstruction will happen.”
Even if the stadium is rebuilt, though, crowds aren’t going to increase significantly. “You can't compare the 67,000-capacity Vélodrome [in Marseille] which is full almost all the time, to our stadium,” Vasilyev said. “The same is true of the 60,000 stadium in Lyon which was built for Euro 2016 and became the first private football stadium in France. The same is true of the Parc des Princes. There are a huge number of corporate boxes there and all of them are sold at fantastic prices.
The key to Monaco’s proposed future is – counter-intuitively – to reduce the capacity to 12,000 but increase the proportion of VIP seats to 20%, around double the standard for the rest of France. The idea is that if watching football becomes luxurious, Monaco’s many wealthy inhabitants will be attracted. “Our biggest problem is not capacity,” Vasilyev said. “It's that the Louis II became too old. It doesn't have corporate boxes. In modern football, most income from season ticket sales is from VIPs. In Monaco there is a demand but we don't have anything to offer.”
The club believes the renovation will happen. It is on good terms with the House of Grimaldi.
Prince Albert II, who became a football fan in his childhood, going to Monaco games with his father, Prince Rainier III, attends games whenever his schedule allows it. When Monaco played Juventus in Turin in 2015, he was on an official visit in South Korea and got up at 4am local time to watch the game. He even invited Rybolovlev and Vasilyev to the christening of his children.
On behalf of the club, Vasilyev signed an agreement with the prime minister of Monaco to promote the country’s image. On the official website of AS Monaco, there is a section about the state.
Tax is another complication. “Monaco is a Monegasque company,” Vasilyev said, “which follows the laws and rules of the principality. It's impossible to work under the laws of France. At the same time nobody was happy about our presence [in the French league]. When we got back to Ligue 1, a movement started aimed at depriving AS Monaco of the privileges relating to our special tax regime. Monegasques and tax residents, unlike organisations and companies, don't pay income tax. In France it's about 50%. That means our club can spend half as much to pay a player the same net. The exception is French players who pay taxes in their country and there are many of them at AS Monaco.”
This tax advantage was contested by many French clubs and the arrival of Rybolovlev led to an ultimatum from the league to move Monaco’s headquarters into France so the club fell under French law. After lengthy negotiations, a deal was reached whereby Monaco made a one-off payment of €50m but remained in Monaco.
“Nevertheless, seven of the 40 members of the top two divisions of the French league were not satisfied with the decision and went to the court,” Vasilyev said. “It was PSG, Marseille, Bordeaux, Lille, Lorient, Montpellier and Caen. The hearing was in the Supreme Court of France. Finally our opponents lost not only this process but everything: we even got back that €50million that had already been paid. It was a full victory. Now nobody argues about our rights and we were able to become full-fledged participants in the French football process.”
In terms of European competition, Monaco are France’s most successful side. They’ve reached the semi-final of the Champions League four times; no other side has got there more than once. “I'm not ready to analyse this fact in detail,” Vasilyev said. “I'm just happy that after the difficult period we were able to restore the past glory of AS Monaco and put it back to the place in French and European football where it deserves to be.”
Yet nobody was predicting that when the season began. “This season we have quite high goals,” Vasilyev said in November. “In the French league to rise at least one place [from third to second], in the Champions League to reach the knock-outs. It's hard to look further than that because you understand the level of potential opponents.”
After the second leg of the Champions League quarter-final against Dortmund, Prince Albert came into the dressing-room to congratulate the players. “He was very happy – as were all Monegasques,” Vasilyev said. “You had to see the atmosphere at our stadium during the Man City and Dortmund games. Moreover, all France now supports us. The day after getting to the semi-final, I was in Paris, and everywhere in the streets people stopped and congratulated us. They are supporters of different clubs. France is proud of us and today AS Monaco has the sympathy of everybody in the country. Recently there was an opinion poll and we are way ahead of all other clubs.”
The European success of Monaco coincided with PSG’s embarrassment at Camp Nou that perhaps helped raise Monaco’s popularity. But Vasilyev regretted PSG’s fiasco for pragmatic reasons: it hits the overall European rating of French clubs.
By the end of April, Monaco had scored 95 goals in Ligue 1 – 24 more than PSG. Could it have been imagined at the start of the season? Monaco scored three goals in each of their first four games in the knockout phase of the Champions League. It was fresh and exciting. It’s hard to believe there is any neutral who has not warmed to them this season.
In the summer, Vasilyev confirmed, two players were eyed by many top sides. The midfielder Fabinho was wanted by Manchester United, Atlético and Napoli, while his partner Tiemoué Bakayoko was wanted by numerous Premier League clubs. But there were no extraordinary offers like the one for Martial and so Monaco kept the squad together.
Falcao’s return to form had been hugely beneficial. There has been no official confirmation but it’s widely believed that, as well as a dramatic haircut, he took a significant pay cut to stay in Monaco and relaunch his career after serious knee injury and two ineffective years at United and Chelsea.
“It looks like the two hard years hardened him, reinforced his character,” Vasilyev said in August 2016. “He came back to Monaco a little bit different, very focused. It's clear also because of some steps that he made. I cannot be specific but he did it to prove that he wants to be in Monaco. Besides, he is a great player and brought a very important dynamic to the dressing-room. We are sure he'll have a very good season.”
Vasilyev was right. Despite several more injuries, Falcao scored 28 goals in his first 40 games and his experience clearly helped Mbappé. “A whole project was designed for Radamel's comeback – both physically and mentally,” the vice-president said. “We never doubted that this season would become the year of the restart of Falcao's career – different from English clubs who either didn't want or didn't manage to do it. We did everything to make him feel comfortable, surrounded him with care and trust. You see the results. Now we want to extend his contract. [His present deal expires in 2018.]”
Believe in the unbelievable and it will become real. When I talked to Vasilyev in May 2015, I recalled that last time Monaco had been champion was 2000 and the last time they won a cup was 1991. I asked if it was possible to win trophies when playing in the same league as a financial monster like PSG.
“Yes,” he replied. “That's why the president set our goal to win Ligue 1. It's very hard but we believe that in football, like in life, if you do everything right and are near the top all the time, you'll get a chance. It's impossible to say when, because it needs many conditions to come together. But I don't doubt that we'll do everything possible.”
The time has come.