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American de Bontin takes charge at Monaco
by Paul Kennedy, May 20th, 2008 11AM
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[AMERICANS ABROAD] French-American Jerome de Bontin, the new president of French club AS Monaco, promises to bring an American touch to one of the most prestigious names in European soccer, a club that has struggled in recent years.

After more than 30 years of involvement in American soccer, as a player, coach, referee and most recently as an influential figure in U.S. Soccer and the U.S. Soccer Foundation, de Bontin is leaving his home in Kenilworth, Ill., to move to Monaco to run AS Monaco.

De Bontin's move came at the calling of Prince Albert of Monaco, his former teammate at Amherst College and longtime friend.

Monaco enjoys only modest support -- the Principality has only 32,000 residents -- but it has a rich history.

"In the eyes of the soccer world," says de Bontin, "Monaco has a special role to play."

Monaco has won seven French league titles since 1961 and five French Cup titles and reached the final of the 2004 UEFA Champions League, where it lost to Porto, but it has struggled in recent years.

Monaco has produced some of the greatest players in recent French history. Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Emmanuel Petit and Lilian Thuram, all members of the 1998 World Cup championship team, got their professional starts at Monaco.

Foreign stars who have played at Monaco include former European Player of the Year George Weah, German star Juergen Klinsmann, Englishman Glenn Hoddle, Mexican star Rafael Marquez and current D.C. United midfielder Marcelo Gallardo. Weah, Marquez and Gallardo all made their European debuts at Monaco.

While Monaco plays in the tiny (18,500 seats) but picturesque Stade Louis II, de Bontin says it has one of the three largest budgets in the French Ligue 1.

"We have world-wide recognition," he says. "Arsene Wenger was our coach [1987-95]. Recently, Barcelona and Manchester United played in the semifinals of the Champions League, and six players who played for our club were on the field."

Monaco currently has three of the top young prospects in France -- Jeremy Menez, Serge Gakpe and Djamel Bakar -- but the club languished on the edge of the relegation zone before finishing 12th in the 20-team Ligue 1.

Monaco's poor performances in recent years resulted in the resignations of president Michel Pastor and vice president Gerard Brianti. Shortly after the end of the regular season on Saturday, reports circulated that de Bontin might shake up the club's front office but keep Brazilian Ricardo on board as coach for the next season.

One of De Bontin's goals is to develop close ties with American soccer. He has been serving on U.S. Soccer's technical committee that U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati formed after the 2006 World Cup to evaluate the nation's approach to youth player development and coaching education.

De Bontin hopes to sign one or two Americans for next season and develop working relationships with U.S. soccer organizations shortly. (He also hopes to get a waiver from the French league to allow Americans to enter Monaco's youth academy -- and to develop a reciprocal program so ASM youth graduates can play college soccer like he did more than a quarter a century ago.)

De Bontin, the president and chief executive officer of Mekar Financial Services and president of Sustainability Investments, plans on moving his family to Monaco.

His first task is to reorganize Monaco's ownership.

"There has been much less of a rift," said de Bontin, "than some of the sports press has reported."

With Monaco assured of returning to the First Division, de Bontin was preparing for his first offseason as club president. One of the criticisms of Monaco was that its management relied to heavily on the advice of player agents.

"I am sufficiently well-connected," says de Bontin, "not to need an agent to tell me who to hire or not to hire."

De Bontin's long-term goal is to develop Monaco's business. He says European soccer is so attractive to American sports entrepreneurs because it remains largely underdeveloped.

He believes French soccer in particular can benefit from "new blood."

Among those de Bontin has turned to is former U.S. Soccer and World Cup 1994 organizing committee president Alan Rothenberg, who has joined AS Monaco's board of directors.

 



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