The tiny principality of Monaco is a footballing anomaly. A minuscule city-state squeezed between France, Italy and the Mediterranean, this tax haven has made its money from high-rolling recreation from the late 19th century onwards.
After casinos came Formula One, the Monte Carlo Rally, and… AS Monaco. Formed in the roaring twenties around the same time as the first Grand Prix, the club spent most of its early years in the amateur divisions of the Provence-Côte d’Azur region.
Coach Lucien Leduc put helped football on a professional footing. His two spells in the 1960s and 1970s reaped three titles, and Monaco was on the football map. Under Arsène Wenger, Monaco then became a powerful force in French football, youths such as Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram turned out in the distinctive red-and-white shirts, along with stars Glenn Hoddle and George Weah.
What Monaco wasn’t, though, was a full member of the football community. Its club plays in the French League while its national team, apart from the FIFA and UEFA family, takes on the likes of fellow castaways The Vatican, the Isle of Man and Tibet. Even more bizarrely, their home ground isn’t AS Monaco’s Stade Louis II, where UEFA held its prestigious season curtain-raiser, the European Super Cup, until 2012; the Monagasques play at the Stade des Moneghetti, just over the border in Beausoleil, France.
Not that you notice when you cross the border. Walk five steps from the nine arches of the Stade Louis II to the Riviera Marriott Hotel opposite for a pre-match cocktail and you’re in France. The stadium is set in the western district of Fontvieille, on land reclaimed from the sea in the 1970s. Most of the stadium complex, differing levels of sports halls and event areas, is underground.
Alongside spread out high-end hotels, luxury yachts and a heliport. The home of the highest number of billionaires in the world per capita, Monaco is the run by the Grimaldi dynasty, whose current head is sport-mad Albert II. With AS Monaco facing third-flight football in 2011, Albert II agreed to sell two-thirds of his family’s shares with Russian potash billionaire Dmitri Rybolovliev.
After promotion in 2013, by splashing out more than €150 million, €50 million on top Colombian striker Radamel Falcao alone, Rybolovliev went toe-to-toe with Qatari-backed Paris Saint-Germain.
Playing in front of the second-lowest crowd in Ligue 1 – on average, a quarter of the principality’s population – the stars dropped points at home, and trailed behind PSG for most of the season.
By 2016, though, something new was happening. The club has a respected academy, La Turbie, but because the Monaco’s cityscape is of one of superyachts and sleek high-rises, and not tangles of streets and random pitches for pick-up games, the players they astutely recruit tend to come from tight-knit communities as young men, more or less. Such were the teenage Kylian Mbappé from the Paris suburbs and Thomas Lemar from Guadeloupe, who set Monaco alight in 2016-17.
Scoring crucial goals in high-profile fixtures against Spurs and Manchester City, the pair helped get Monaco to the semi-final in that Champions League campaign. Shortly after defeat by Juventus, Monaco ended PSG’s domination of the French league. Despite the riches sloshing around this tax-free part of the Med, Monaco’s achievement in overcoming a de facto state-run club operating on three times their budget should not be underestimated.
It was then that Monaco’s ‘buy young, sell big’ policy saw the club rake in hundreds of millions of euros for Mbappé and, a season later, Lemar – and duly play two straight seasons in the Champions League group stage without recording a single win.
Across the road in France, US Cap d’Ail was honoured by the visit of Didier Deschamps in 2018 when twice World Cup winner Didier unveiled his renamed stadium, essentially a training pitch in the shadow of the Marriott Riviera Hotel. It’s here that ex-Ireland star Richard Dunne holds summer training camps for youngsters. The rest of the year, the Stade Didier Deschamps hosts seventh-tier football in Mediterranean regional league 2.
Unless you have your own helicopter, in which case you can use the heliport beside the stadium, the nearest air terminal is Nice, 20km (12.5 miles) away. From there, you have the choice of helicopter (every 30mins, online €160, 7min flight time) or the Nice Airport Express bus No.110, which runs from each terminal every 30min daily to Monaco place d’Armes (journey time 40min, single €22, return €33, pay on board). From there, bus Nos.4 and 6 run to the stadium at Fontvieille, by the border with France.
If you’re getting the train from Nice-Riquier (20min, €3.50), there’s no station at Monaco-Monte Carlo as such, just a series of exit levels. Boulevard de Belgique leads up to bus No.5, Port Boulevard Albert Ier leads down to bus No.6 – both heading for Fontvieille. A machine at the station/bus stop dispenses tickets (€1.50, €5 day pass, touch in on board). It’s otherwise €2 on board. The bus service shuts down about 9.30pm, after which there’s a one-line night service.
Taxi Nice Airport (+33 1 80 20 22 60) charges around €85-€90 to Monaco, depending on time of day. Taxis Monaco (+377 93 15 01 01) offers a 24-hour local service.
Facing the stadium, overlooking Cap d’Ail harbour, the Marriott Riviera Hotel La Porte de Monaco is unsurprisingly upscale, with a gym, pools indoor and out, and a terrace bar overlooking the bobbing boats. Note that this four-star is actually in France and cannot be booked through the Visit Monaco website. A short walk along the harbour, Le Quai des Princes is also, technically, in France, its panoramic pool overlooking the Marriott Riviera some 7-8min walk from the stadium. Rooms are either suites or studios.
Also close to the stadium, and within Monaco itself, Columbus Monte-Carlo is a favourite with Grand Prix drivers – it was originally owned by David Coulthard. Note the rooftop pool.
Close to the action around the Port de Monaco, Port Palace provides boutique comfort, harbour views and a spa.
A handful of more affordable two- and three-stars sit just over the border in France, a short walk downhill into Monaco. The Boéri on boulevard du Général Leclerc offers doubles at just over €110-€120. The Grimaldi Forum is just below.
There’s plenty of scope for fun in this sportsmen’s playground. Monaco even has its own beer, a golden lager sold at the Brasserie de Monaco (‘The Place to Beer’), right on focal quai Albert 1er, based around a century-old local brewery and a good place to start any crawl, TV sports, burgers and all. Nearby, Jack is a slightly gaudy bar/restaurant but with a match-winning, water-view terrace and TV sports.
Diagonally across the Port de Monaco, Stars ‘N’ Bars is a destination sports bar, with framed Formula One iconography displayed around a large interior and island bar. Menu and theme have gone green to keep up with the times, but essentially this is still a US-style hangout to gawp at fast cars and football on TV screens.
The one really unmissable place in town is the wonderful Monte Carlo Bar, a football-focused corner spot at a major junction where boulevard Charles III meets avenue Prince-Pierre, decked out in framed sports souvenirs. Bar staff are seen-it-all, friendly Italians, proud to be serving drinks surrounded by a complete collection of autographed shirts from the 2016-17 side.
Mc Carthy’s Pub is Monaco’s Irish bar, on the quiet street of rue du Portier near the Japanese Garden away from the action and part of a nightspot chain. Near the station, where rue Grimaldi meets rue Suffren Reymond, Slammer’s isn’t subtle but gets everyone drinking and gets lively for big-match nights.
Over in Fontvieille, a convivial bar strip along quai Jean-Charles Rey down from the Columbus Hotel has a waterfront location and a lively feel. The Ship and Castle is the only English pub in town, established over 30 years ago, all roast dinners, Prem and rugby on TV, and fish & chips on Fridays. A couple of doors down, Gerhard’s Cafe makes a very good case for being the best bar in Monaco, offering Bavarian Paulaner and Weihenstephan on draught, strong cocktails after 6pm and, most of all, the lovely buzz of a lived-in drinkery. Austrian-owned, German in feel and Italianate where it needs to be, with honest bar food, Gerhard’s attracts yachter, dock worker and sports fan alike.