The helicopter journey from Nice airport to Monaco heliport, a structure perched precariously above the Mediterranean on the outskirts of Monte Carlo, takes seven minutes.
The flight affords barely enough time to appreciate the Cote d’Azur’s vivid colours, set with picture postcard perfection against a backdrop of snow-capped Alps, before the aircraft reaches Cap d’Ail and begins its descent into Monaco, passing Stade Louis II en route.
As journeys to football stadia go, it’s pretty impressive and for a succession of highly-paid footballers, it saves the arduous drive along the Basse Corniche which links France to the Principality.
Over the past couple of weeks, several of Europe’s most coveted footballers have taken the short flight along the world’s most famous coastline.
Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Joao Moutinho, soon to be joined by former Chelsea defender Ricardo Carvalho and Barcelona goalkeeper Victor Valdes will, by the start of next season, be AS Monaco players, thanks to the largesse of the latest Russian billionaire to take a serious financial interest in football, Dmitry Rybolovlev.
The former cardiologist has already spent an astonishing £110 million recruiting the first three players listed above, bringing them to a club that has only recently been promoted from France’s Ligue 2 to the nation’s top flight.
But there’s the rub. AS Monaco are theoretically banned from competing in Ligue 1 next season, ostensibly because they’re recruiting players, paying them a king’s ransom (Falcao is picking up a reported £250,000 a week, tax-free) and basing them in a tax haven. This, reckon the makers and shakers at other Ligue 1 clubs, is unfair, because it flies in the face of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Rules.
Sensing that Monaco would be promoted at the end of the current season, in March, the Ligue Professionel de Football (LFP) passed a resolution restricting top flight admission to clubs who have their HQ in France for tax purposes. To comply, AS Monaco would have to either change their status or forfeit their place in the top flight.
Of course, no-one had a problem with the football club before Rybolovlev arrived. Indeed, AS Monaco were one of France’s Champions League representatives only a few years ago.
Despite its tax-haven status and sun-drenched port rammed with the yachts of people who make Tony Soprano look like Mary Poppins, AS Monaco have never before enjoyed the financial backing of a super-rich owner. The expensive shops, Ferrari-strewn boulevards and ultra-discreet private security services may scream money, but the tiny number of Monaco residents have always been rather sniffy about football.
The LFP’s actions have, however, raised a few Monegasque hackles and prompted the French Football Federation (FFF) to assume the role of moderator, though the Rybolovelev camp are not over-enamoured with their proposal. The FFF has suggested that were AS Monaco to stump up €200 million (£170 million) as a compensation payment to other Ligue 1 clubs over the next seven seasons, the clubs would be prepared to shelve their grievances.
How such an arrangement would work and who would receive the cash is unclear, but the LFP have the right to restrict entry into their league. Their gripe is that while they must adhere to UEFA’s rules regarding Financial Fair Play, they claim that AS Monaco are not bound by the same rules.
Rybolovlev feels as though he’s being hustled by a group who consider him an easy touch. According to one account, when he received the FFF representatives, armed with their written proposal, he read it, stood up and stormed out of the room. His next action was to launch legal proceedings in France’s Supreme Court against the LFP, in which he declared that their action last March “violates several fundamental principles of French and European law, notably the principle of free movement, free competition, free access to sporting competitions, and also the Franco-Monegasque tax convention signed on the 18 February 1963”.
At present, the parties have reached an impasse but Rybolovlev appears convinced his lawyers will prevail, hence his unprecedented (and continued) spending spree as he prepares his club for France’s top flight and an opportunity to challenge French champions PSG both in the financial and playing sense.
When the Qatar Investment Authority bought Paris St Germain in May 2011 and lavished more than €200 million (around £185 million) on signings in the space of 14 months, breaking the French transfer record in the process, by acquiring Javier Pastore for €42 million, the football-supporting public’s response amounted to little more than a Gallic shrug. Yet AS Monaco have long been cast as footballing pariahs, primarily because they’re based within a tax haven.
While French economic performance makes Britain look positively buoyant, and a steady flow of economic crises consume the Hollande administration, AS Monaco’s tax advantages are considered by many French football supporters and administrators to be an outrageous injustice. Were Rybolovlev to acquire talent from Ligue 1 clubs, it may assuage the differences between LFP and his club, but such a move appears increasingly unlikely and it leaves AS Monaco in danger of being ostracised.
One AS Monaco source said that Rybololvlev “was unhappy at having the LFP decision [last March] imposed upon the club without any consultation, especially when Monaco’s impact upon Ligue 1 and ongoing investment in French football is likely to be extremely positive.”
Others consider Rybolovlev’s billions a threat to French football. His decision to challenge the LFP through the courts is seen as establishing an extremely dangerous precedent.
Many French football supporters and senior officials believe that if one party can launch a legal challenge against an association which forces it to accept clubs, even though that association’s rules explicitly exclude them for breaches of their rules, then football’s basic league regulations and parameters are immediately destroyed. Most French fans would pay more than a centime for the thoughts of UEFA boss Michel Platini, architect of the body’s Financial Fair Play directives regarding this matter.
“If football is still considered a sport, not an arm of business or the plaything of billionaires, then it must adhere to sporting rules,” says Jacques Lefevre, author of several books on French football. “The LFP have rules to which all members must adhere. If AS Monaco want to become a member, it is they, not the LFP, who must change their rules.”
Neither party shows any sign of relenting, but it’s early days. Expect AS Monaco’s spending spree to continue and a financial settlement to be reached whereby Rybolovlev’s billions are guaranteed to acquire young talent from other French clubs.
The LFP may be furiously waving the ‘Liberte,Egalite, Fraternite’ banner at the moment, but despite such sentiment, money talks.