Backline: Soccer is de Bontin's Passion

For more than a quarter century, soccer has been Jerome de Bontin's passion.

Since earning a non-athletic scholarship earmarked for a deserving French student to attend prestigious Amherst College, the French-born de Bontin has been involved in American soccer as a player, coach, referee and administrator.

Soccer was also an escape for de Bontin, who worked as an investment banker, managing the assets of his clients. (His Mexar Financials Services promotes and sponsors sustainability investment funds to governments, corporations and institutional investors.)

For almost 15 years, he was a youth referee, working games in the Chicago area.

"It was the one time every week when I was always right," de Bontin laughs. "No one, not my wife, not my associates, not my clients, could argue with me."

Soccer has been important to de Bontin since arriving at Amherst. On the second day at school, the young Frenchman met another French-speaking soccer player. His name: Prince Albert of Monaco.

Prince Albert played left back and de Bontin played on the left side of midfield, and they have been close ever since.

Prince Albert was the best man at de Bontin's wedding, and he is the godfather of one of de Bontin's sons.

In 2002, Prince Albert, who plays a key role in the affairs of AS Monaco, named de Bontin to the club's board of directors and in April chose him to take over as president.

While Monaco enjoys only modest support — the principality has only 32,000 residents — it is one of the most successful clubs in French soccer with seven league titles since 1961.

Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet, Emmanuel Petit and Lilian Thuram, all members of the 1998 World Cup championship team, got their 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.

"We have worldwide recognition," de Bontin 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."

De Bontin's challenge is to make Monaco a league contender again. It finished 12th in the 20-team Ligue 1 in 2007-08 after languishing dangerously on the edge of the relegation zone with a month to go in the season.

Monaco has a nucleus of young talent — Jeremy Menez, Serge Gakpe and Djamel Bakar are among France's top young players — but its success will depend largely on the ability of de Bontin and his new front-office team to overhaul Monaco's roster on the summer transfer market.

"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, who has served on the U.S. Soccer Foundation's board of directors, has also been charged with turning around Monaco on the business front. He says French soccer has lagged far behind English soccer in promoting itself abroad.

"Why do you think Manchester United and Arsenal play at 1 p.m.?" he says. "It's 8 p.m. — prime time in Seoul and Beijing."

De Bontin's goal is to expand Monaco's reach abroad in key soccer markets like Asia and North America.

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

De Bontin, who has been serving on U.S. Soccer's technical committee formed after the 2006 World Cup to evaluate the nation's approach to youth player development and coaching education, promised to develop close ties with American soccer.

Monaco has already announced a significant investment in the Chicago Magic — in which de Bontin's younger son plays.

It will cover all expenses of players and coaches for the Magic's U-16 and U-18 U.S. Soccer Developmental Academy teams.

(This article originally appeared in the July 2008 issue of Soccer America magazine.

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