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'Monaco is soulless and vapid -- but their team isn't'

A visit to to the area left Tommy Martin unimpressed — but don’t hold that against Arsenal’s Champions League opponents.

Monaco outclassed Arsenal in the first-leg meeting between the sides.
Monaco outclassed Arsenal in the first-leg meeting between the sides.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

ONE OF THE less-noted crimes perpetrated by Arsenal in their Round of 16 first-leg defeat to Monaco was making the Russian billionaire-owned club, from a tax haven with the world’s highest GDP per capita, seem like plucky underdogs.

Of course, it’s partly a legacy of Arsene Wenger’s time as manager — Hoddle, Weah, Djorkaeff etc — that AS Monaco are mildly likeable when the place they’re from is so objectionable.

I spent a couple of days there in 2011. The occasion was the late summer UEFA jamboree that surrounds the group stage draws for the Champions and Europa Leagues and, at that time, the staging of the UEFA Super Cup.

As with most places where the super-rich decide to hoard their wealth, there was a sense of emptiness about Monaco, only exacerbated by the sun and the setting. Imagine the accumulated sadness of all the children in the world who’d never learned to share their toys living together in the same place as grown-ups.

A typical street: Maserati showroom, private bank, headquarters of an international sporting federation. The engine of a Bugatti Veyron growls, as if angry at the pointlessness of being driven on narrow streets whose horrendous traffic mean it can never outpace an energetically-pedalled bicycle. At night, open-shirted playboys and high-end sex workers meet in soulless bars.

The first display of genuine emotion I experienced while there was when running into a bunch of Atletico Madrid supporters on their way to the Stade Louis II. The general rambunctiousness of football fans, with their chants of devotion and derision, contrasted completely with the vapid sophistication around them. Perhaps that’s why the Super Cup has been quietly moved away to be staged on a revolving circuit of real cities, the kind that Formula One drivers don’t choose to live in.

Monaco’s status as a playground for super-rich tax avoiders derives from the late 19th century decision of the ruling Grimaldi dynasty to get into the casino game. Until then the Grimaldis had funded their tenacious hold on the sun-drenched rock, ironically, through the grinding taxation of neighbouring townspeople.

French Soccer - Premiere Division - AS Monaco v RC Lens Source: EMPICS Sport

(A number of great French footballers, including Thierry Henry, started off at Monaco)

When the folk of Menton and Roquebrune, quite understandably, decided they’d had enough and threw their lot in with France, the Monte Carlo Casino was built to keep the diminutive monarchy afloat. Its success was such that the remaining Monegasques were spared the collection of any income tax at all. Cue the arrival of generations of greedy gazillionaires.

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Until the turn of the century, AS Monaco had managed to avoid the general taint of well-heeled indolence, despite having Monaco’s philandering tin-pot aristocracy as their number one fans.

As well as Wenger’s admirable battle against the dominance of a corrupt Marseille, the club’s impressive youth development system of that time would provide the backbone of France’s great international successes, producing players like Lilian Thuram, David Trezeguet, Emmanuel Petit and Thierry Henry.

But while Didier Deschamps’s team that reached the 2004 Champions League final was a talented, hard-working bunch, off the field, AS Monaco resembled a dissolute minor European prince gallivanting beyond his means on the Cote D’Azur. They were crippled by massive debts until Dmitry Rybolovlev plucked the ailing club aboard his metaphorical super-yacht and resuscitated them in grand style.

Rybolovlev’s well-publicised difficulties since — meddlesome Financial Fair Play rules, the most expensive divorce in history — meant it was a more modest AS Monaco that pitched up at the Emirates.

Topping a Champions League group while scoring just four goals suggested a dreary modus operandi, but the earnest and disciplined manner in which Arsenal were picked off two weeks ago reflected well on the reconstruction job done by coach Leonardo Jardim following the departures of Radamel Falcao and James Rodriguez.

Like their home principality, AS Monaco have shown resourcefulness and a knack for survival. Unlike the rock from whence they come, this team is characterised by doughty substance rather than gaudy opulence.

Arsene Wenger would be proud.

Tommy Martin presents Champions League live on Tuesday nights on TV3. 

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Tommy Martin

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