Monaco's portrayal as plucky underdogs underlines European football's gross inequality

Charlie Eccleshare
Monaco's players celebrate knocking Manchester City out of the Champions League - AFP

Imagine this scenario: At the end of the season Uefa announce that they are placing a five-year ban on any of the current Monaco team being sold. 

Bernardo Silva, Benjamin Mendy, Kylian Mbappe et al. all stay in the principality rather than joining Real Madrid or Barcelona, and with Leonardo Jaulim at the helm they evolve into one of the most exciting teams in Europe. 

In three years time, given room to grow, Monaco are Champions League winners - and for the first time since 2012 a team other than Real Madrid, Barcelona or Bayern Munich is crowned Europe's best. 

This, of course, will not happen. Instead this wonderfully talented group of young players will be poached by Europe's richest and most successful clubs, and Monaco's exuberant elan will quickly be extinguished. 

That is how modern European football works. Just ask the Bayer Leverkusen team of 2002 that reached the Champions League final and was then powerless to stop their core of Michael Ballack, Ze Roberto and latterly Lucio joining the Bavarian behemoth Bayern Munich shortly after. 

Kylian Mbappe is one of Monaco's many exciting young players

Or the Athletic Bilbao team of 2012 that swaggered past Manchester United en route to the Europa League final before being forced to sell Javi Martinez, Fernando Llorente and Ander Herrera (to United) within a couple of years.  Or most pertinently Monaco could look at the case of Borussia Dortmund, who they face in the Champions League quarter-final on Tuesday night. 

In 2013, Dormund were much like Monaco are now. A free-wheeling, enterprising young side with a core of home-grown players looking to shake up the established order. 

Managed by Jurgen Klopp, Dortmund marched all the way to the Champions League final. At that point though the vultures began to circle, and over the next three years they lost three of their star players Robert Lewandowski, Mario Gotze and Mats Hummels to domestic rivals Bayern Munich, and Ilkay Gundogan to the petrodollar pull of Manchester City

They have rebuilt impressively, but if they go close to winning the Champions League this season, expect the spooked Big Boys to swiftly poach Marco Reus or Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. 

Great teams that never were

At this point, you could be forgiven for saying, "so what?". A smaller club being forced to sell their best player to a bigger club is hardly revelatory. 

What is extraordinary about the situation is that a club with the financial clout of Monaco can be cast in the role of the underdog, powerless to stop their best players leaving. 

Monaco have been owned by the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev since 2011, and spent so lavishly at the start of his reign that they were threatened with sanctions by Uefa over breaching Financial Fair Play regulations. 

They have recalibrated their approach since to developing more young players, but this is still a club with considerable financial backing that pays Radamel Falcao a salary of around £12m and benefits from an accommodating tax system. 

But European football has become so hegemonic that anyone outside of Real, Barca or Bayern struggles to develop quickly enough to reach the summit before being dismantled. The sequence between 1991 and 1999 when nine European cups were won by nine different clubs from seven different nations is impossible to imagine now. 

Diego Simeone has worked wonders with Atletico Madrid

Atletico Madrid have tried to upset the established order in recent years but they have been forced to constantly regenerate in the wake of their best players being snaffled by richer clubs. 

Juventus managed to reach the Champions League final two years ago, but they too have lost key players since and had to rebuild. What's more, Juve being portrayed as the little guy bloodying the nose of the elite is even more ludicrous than Monaco's underdog status, given that the Italians have twice won the European Cup and are 32-time Serie A champions. 

The scary thing for the chasing pack is that the 'Big Three' of Barca, Real and Bayern are only getting stronger, richer and more marketable.

Superclubs like these perfectly serve the interest of the casual fan, providing them with a-near guarantee of witnessing comfortable victories and glimpses of the world's most famous players. Fans like these are often happy to plough money into watching their team, buy their shirts, support their commercial affiliates. This ensures that inequality continues to grow.   

For the long-term health of the game though, such predictability is in no-one's interests. Monaco this season have breathed new life into a competition that was going stale, but it has been tinged with regret that we are watching the end rather than the beginning of a thrilling young side. 

CL quarter finalists

 

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