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The Russian Oligarch and the French Soccer Club: How Monaco got Emptied Out

Monaco's Russian oligarch owner made some big promises after buying the team, but after a brief renaissance, fans may be in for some fresh hell.
September 4, 2014, 5:00pm
AS Monaco Stadium. Photo via Wikipedia.

Dmitry Rybolovlev is dangling his club over a cliff. The Russian oligarch bought AS Monaco in late 2011, when it was still in the French second division. He promised to utterly remake the club and backed that promise with massive expenditures. But this past transfer window, Monaco were sellers, shipping out their best talent. Rybolovlev's once-optimistic supporters fear he might be getting cold feet. They're on the brink of revolt.

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Monaco is—or perhaps was—supposed to be a nouveau riche club in the vein of Paris Saint-German or Manchester City. It's a simple model: some unfathomably rich guy (or company, in PSG's case) purchases a team with the intention to buy his way to the top and, because European soccer is a free market, he transforms the club into a domestic and international power in short order. (UEFA introduced its Financial Fair Play regulations to curb this behavior, but they are relatively toothless.) New money spends the same as old money. If you examine the various European league tables, you're as likely to see an upstart world-beater like Chelsea at the top as you are a historically dominant institution like Real Madrid.

After his club was promoted to Ligue 1 last summer, Rybolovlev set out to construct the best squad in France. He paid a premium to do so. Radamel Falcao came in from Atlético Madrid for €60 million. Porto's James Rodríguez and João Moutinho cost a combined €70 million. Sevilla midfielder Geoffrey Kondogbia was acquired for €20 million and free agent Jérémy Toulalan was given an extremely generous contracts. Adding to the club's considerable expenses, the French FA slapped Monaco with a €50 million fine, citing an unfair competitive advantage because Rybolovlev refused to allow his players' wages to be taxed at the French rate as opposed to the much lower Monégasque one.

But after one profligate summer and a reasonably successful 2013-14 season—second in Ligue 1, Champions League qualification—Rybolovlev has stopped spending. No one seems to know why. A staggering £2.7 billion divorce settlement between Rybolovlev and his now ex-wife is commonly believed to be the main reason, but a report by The Guardian has "club sources" insisting that the real impact of the settlement has been exaggerated. Regardless, Rodríguez has been sold to Real Madrid and Falcao will be at Manchester United for at least the next year. Those players haven't been replaced by other stars. As currently constructed, Monaco don't have a prayer of competing with PSG domestically or of making much noise in the Champions League.

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We've seen this sort of thing happen before. In 2011, Qatari Sheik Abdullah bin Nasser Al-Thani bought the medium-sized Spanish club Málaga and aimed to use his wealth to turn them into a Chelsea-like behemoth. He spent €60 million in a single transfer window and hired former Villarreal and Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini. The project more or less succeeded. Málaga finished fourth in La Liga. Then, suddenly, Sheik Abdullah pulled the plug on his investment. In the summer of 2012, most of his expensive new players were sold off. Some of them had to file complaints with the Spanish FA on their way out the door in order to recoup unpaid wages. Last season, Málaga finished 11th domestically. Three years after Sheik Abdullah's takeover, the club is its old self again, but with embittered fans.

Europe's nouveau riche class demonstrate that soccer clubs are the playthings of oil barons and Middle Eastern royalty—instead of helicopters and yachts, world-class athletes—but at least Manchester City supporters get to enjoy watching David Silva and Sergio Agüero. The failed experiments are the ones that drive the point home painfully.

Some Monaco fans are asking for their money back. The price of season tickets has risen considerably over the past couple of summers, and they don't want to pay a premium to watch a side that can't hold a candle to Europe's biggest clubs. In a statement published on Planete ASM, the group of supporters agitating for a refund admit that they don't think they're going to see a dime from Rybolovlev. They want their demands to "at least … show our general unhappiness."

There's a poignant sense of resignation in that sentiment. The fans know they can't do much to affect change. Their anger is useless. All they can do is hope Rybolovlev's whim swings the other way, that he wants to build the team he said he would. Otherwise, nouveau riche will turn to faux riche, and they'll be shit out of luck.

Editor's Note: This piece has been edited to account for Dmitry Rybolovlev's divorce settlement.