Monaco's ambitious dream fades with Radamel Falcao exit
May 31, 2013 was a day full of vivid imagery, like some long-lost off-cuts from classic 1980s Scorsese films. Radamel Falcao wore a pink blazer and a cravat, as if he had steered his own personal yacht into Le Rocher (as the locals call Monte Carlo) and subsequently strode ashore to commence business. Newly promoted but remaining one of the blue-chip names in French football history, Monaco were climbing several strata higher from an already perpetually privileged status. Falcao's 60 million euro arrival from Atletico Madrid made them global big hitters.
So how did we get to here and now? Fast-forward 14 months, and after an unseemly raffle in front of an audience of Europe's elite to get the Colombian off the wage bill, Monaco are cutting El Tigre loose. Not even for his "sueno" (dream) of Real Madrid, but for a Manchester United club which (while remaining a world behemoth) will not share the rarefied air of the Champions League with the Principality club this season.
The explanation is multilayered, but could be distilled into a standard Scorsese narrative. The dream was big, the reality was bigger, but it turned out to be built on foundations of sand. The central figure is Dmitry Rybolovlev. Don't let the name fool you; this tale is not one of a typical oligarch selecting a plaything at will. The 47-year-old has history with Monte Carlo stretching back over almost two decades, since leaving Russia in the mid-1990s and arriving there via a brief spell in Geneva. Rybolovlev bought his current residence in Monaco -- La Belle Epoque, in which he now lives with his eldest daughter Ekaterina -- back in 2010 for about 240 million euros (190 million pounds.)
After years of being bailed out by the Monegasque royal family, AS Monaco were going to become truly upwardly mobile under Rybolovlev. Ranked as the 119th-richest man in the world by Forbes in 2013, the potash magnate bought the club in December 2011, with the vista looking bleak. Monaco were bottom of Ligue 2, but 18 months after an initial spell of extensive recruitment and the hiring of Claudio Ranieri as coach, they were promoted back to the top flight.
This is the point at which the story really gained momentum. Falcao arrived for an estimated 60 million euros (47.5 million pounds) from Atletico, exactly a week after his former Porto teammates James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho signed in a joint transaction valued at a whopping 70 million euros (55.3 million pounds). Beyond the spectacular headlines, Monaco's buying policy looked sound. The big names were backed up by experienced pros (Eric Abidal, Ricardo Carvalho) and talent that promised to developed over years to come (Anthony Martial, Geoffrey Kondogbia) in a shrewd, three-tier market strategy.
Indeed, 2013-14 began in suitably upbeat fashion, with a goal for Falcao on his debut at Bordeaux and an 11-game unbeaten run in Ligue 1 suggesting Monaco could have the might to challenge moneybag champions Paris Saint-Germain. Yet even as the road to a return to the Champions League opened up, the floorboards were creaking. As Monaco's spending intensified, but so had their Ligue 1 rivals' calls for them to be stripped of their considerable tax advantages. The lack of income tax payable by overseas players -- with Monaco a separate state than France -- had long since given the Louis II club significant scope to blow competitors out of the water in terms of wages.
As early as 2002, the likes of Lyon and Bordeaux were floating the idea of Monaco being required to pay a league entry fee to level the playing field. And this is eventually what happened, more or less. In January, the Ligue de Football Professionnel (LFP) and Monaco announced in a joint statement that the club would pay a "one-off, voluntary payment" of 50 million euros (39.5 million pounds) in order to maintain the status quo. The alternative had been unpalatable, with talks eventually prompted by the LFP's attempt to force Monaco to have their administrative base in France starting in summer 2015 -- a move that would have made the club subject to French tax. With France president Francois Hollande's plan to introduce the top rate of tax at the rate of 75 percent for annual individual earnings over 1 million euros (800,000 pounds), this would have been potentially ruinous for Rybolovlev.
Speaking of which, Rybolovlev's personal issues also made a considerable contribution to the club's dealings, with his acrimonious and drawn-out divorce settlement battle with ex-wife Elena concluding in May after five years of wrangling. Rybolovlev was ordered to pay Elena about half of his estimated 8 billion euro (6.32 billion pounds) fortune. Given that he had already invested 350 million euros in transfer funds and debt repayment by that point, it is easy to understand why Rybolovlev might have wanted to pull back.
To an extent, he would be forced to. Financial Fair Play (FFP) has been making waves across the European game and affecting the transfer market for the first time, and few clubs have been as ill-equipped to deal with the consequences as Monaco. Last season's average attendance of 8,906 and a modest shirt sponsorship deal -- Monaco were forced to welcome back FedCom, the previous incumbent, for half of the hoped-for 10 million euro annual price after failing to secure a deal with a number of high-spec brands, which included Jaguar -- meant that the maximum 45 million euro (35.6 million pounds) loss over a three-year period was always likely to be surpassed. Falcao's 12 million euro (9.5 million pounds) net annual salary weighed more heavily than ever.
It was these wages that left Monaco over a barrel, even after the 80 million euro sale of James to Real Madrid which saw a handsome post-World Cup profit. Their hawking of Falcao among Europe's high rollers the last month or so showed Monaco's hand early; they needed to get rid of him, even if nobody really wanted to take the risk until January, bringing a loan into the equation (which also helped navigate an FFP-pleasing route to satisfaction.) In the end, a flush (and desperate) United became the most realistic option.
So Rybolovlev's dream appears to be over before it ever really began. If you can't summon sympathy for him, at least spare a thought for Ligue 1, which lost its second global name in a little over a month. Autumn has arrived, and nobody in Monte Carlo is in the mood for a yacht party any more.