Monaco eye Champions League history to awake fans from slumber
MONACO -- It is pretty much a normal day in Monaco. The sun is still shining on the magnificent bay of Monte Carlo, the Lamborghinis, Ferraris and Bentleys are still parked near the Casino, the beautiful Mediterranean offers a never-ending blue horizon. The famous Monte Carlo tennis tournament, which started on Monday, has created a bit more buzz around the place than usual. However, one day before arguably the biggest game in Monaco football team's season, there is no football fever. No Champions League passion. No enthusiasm.
Walking around Monaco on Tuesday, you would not know there is a huge Champions League quarterfinal second leg to be played on Wednesday against Borussia Dortmund at the Stade Louis II, just near the city centre.
The city of Monaco likes its football but it does not go crazy for it. The 16,500 seater-stadium is only full five or six times a season at best and, incredibly, there were still some tickets on general sale on Tuesday morning.
This is football life in Monaco, a city like no other and a football club like no other. With 38,000 people living there in the summer (which falls to around 9,000 in the winter), AS Monaco will never be a normal club with a big fanbase. Around 20 percent of the inhabitants have the Monaco nationality, 24 percent are French, 18 percent are Italians and seven percent are British. The rest come from 140 different countries around the world. It is hard for the club to find a local identity among such a cosmopolitan background.
It is getting better than it was 10 years ago and, in fairness, the club is working hard to improve the atmosphere at the stadium. Yet, Monaco's average attendance this season in Ligue 1 is just 9,095 per game -- the worst in the top flight behind Dijon and Bastia. Despite Monaco sitting top of the table, playing some of the best football in Europe, having stars like Radamel Falcao, Kylian Mbappe or Bernardo Silva, they still cannot attract fans to come and watch them.
Most of the fans who do make it are not Monaco residents but come from the outskirts where the competition in terms of football (Nice, Marseille) and sports (rugby, basketball) is huge. There are great nights, like against Manchester City last month, where the support is brilliant and the players feel the crowd behind them. But there are not enough.
On Wednesday evening, however, there will be a special atmosphere. The Monaco fans will repay their Dortmund counterparts for their incredible hospitality last week when the game was postponed after three explosions targeted the Dortmund team bus. They will invite their new friends for drinks and offer them an accommodation if needed. And it may be needed: 3,000 Germans are expected in town between Tuesday and Wednesday despite the club only receiving 950 tickets as their official allocation.
The game itself is intriguing and Monaco seem on the verge of something special. For such a young team (their average age is just over 24 this season), put together in a very clever way with a mix of big players (Falcao and Joao Moutinho), academy graduates (Mbappe, Valere Germain and Almamy Tour) and astute signings (Thomas Lemar, Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko, Fabinho, Karim Glik), it would an incredible achievement to reach the last four of the Champions League for the first time since 2004.
They have the lead (3-2) after the first leg and, with an excellent tactical manager in Leonardo Jardim, can also rely on taking some momentum and belief into the game. Even without the brains behind this team in midfield, Fabinho, who is suspended, confidence is high.
If the 18 year-old prodigy Mbappe is stealing all the headlines with 15 goals in his last 15 appearances, Falcao is the romantic story of the season at Monaco. A story of faith, of redemption and of success, his 24 goals and four assists in 33 games in all competitions for the club have resurrected the 31-year-old Colombian striker after two horrendous years at Manchester United and Chelsea. He will captain his team once again on Wednesday.
If they can see off the challenge of Dortmund, Monaco would become the first team in the history of the Champions League to start the competition in the third qualifying round and to reach the semifinals. After finishing third in Ligue 1 last season behind PSG and Lyon, they had to beat Fenerbahce (4-3 in aggregate) and then Villarreal (2-2 with progress sealed on away goals) back in July and August to book their place in the group stages.
Now, nine months later, they are one game away from becoming one of the four best teams in Europe. It would be an incredible achievement if they can make it happen, but Monaco are not finished yet. They will need all their fans, wherever they come from, to support them to the very end. This season could offer some big rewards for doing so.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.