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Back from the Brink

By his own admission, Vince Volpe is not a lifelong soccer fan.

He played American football in his younger days, and his two daughters never took a liking to “the beautiful game,” either.

But Volpe has always loved the competitive nature of sports, and after spending more than a quarter-century living in the Normandy region of France, he grew to love his adopted hometown of Le Havre, too. So when an opportunity came up to help save the most beloved sporting institution the city has ever known, Volpe was only too happy to step up and salvage it from possible collapse.

That’s precisely what he did nearly three years ago, when it became clear that Le Havre AC (HAC)—the oldest soccer club in all of France, founded in 1872—was in dire financial straits. Facing struggles on the field and enormous challenges off it, the club found itself in need of solid financial backing—not to mention some business-savvy leadership. Widely known in Le Havre’s social circles because of his longtime ties to the area through his work as an executive with Dresser-Rand Group Inc., Volpe was soon approached about doing what he could to help.

And while owning a soccer club was never in his plans, Volpe knew what the club meant to his local friends—and to the city, too. So he took a leap of faith, decided to brave the wild that is European club soccer, and became chairman of the club known locally as “les ciel et marine” (the sky and navy blues) in 2015.

“What we’re trying to do is save the oldest club in the country,” he says. “This is very important to people in this region. It’s important to the local economy to have a strong soccer club—having this is an important tourist attraction. So it was really those reasons why I stepped in, and I have to say, it’s been a very rewarding experience.”

It’s been that, he says, even though he’s yet to achieve the breakthrough that represents his ultimate goal—promotion to League 1, the top division in France.

It is there, Volpe says, that he is confident his club will ultimately rise, but the challenges of fielding a top team in French soccer—and, more broadly speaking, European soccer—are real. Competition among clubs both domestically and across the continent is fierce, and the competition is perhaps even more intense among those clubs that, like HAC, are striving to escape League 2, the French second division, and secure the riches that come along with a place in League 1.

With promotion to the top echelon would come a massive boost in income and, just as important, greater prestige on the world stage. Both would help the club attract better players, better managers and better back-room staff, which would in turn create a better on-the-field product and bolster interest in the club, both locally and nationally.

It is nothing less than the essential step forward for the club—a goal that must be achieved, Volpe says. And he’s been bold in its pursuit.

Shortly after taking over as chairman, Volpe pushed forward on a near-complete overhaul of the club’s infrastructure. The club’s board of directors was re-evaluated, with several members ultimately being replaced. A new general manager was hired, and in perhaps his most savvy early move, Volpe hired former U.S. Men’s National Team coach Bob Bradley to take over as his club’s new manager. The hiring of Bradley did more than just give HAC one of the most highly regarded managers in the game; it also gave the club huge visibility back home in the States, as Bradley became the first American manager of a top-tier English club. The hiring garnered headlines in mainstream sports publications and gave HAC more publicity than it had seen in years.

And if some in European soccer circles were skeptical of the move, wondering if Volpe brought on Bradley precisely because of their shared American ties, Volpe says he never once questioned it. He believed in Bradley, and he knew his friends in Normandy believed in him.

“Because I know so many people here, and I’ve been here such a long time, I think people look at me and say, ‘Well, he’s got an American passport, but he’s been here since 1990, so he’s basically one of us.’ I’ve had zero pushback as an ‘American owner,’” Volpe says. “The response to Bob was positive, too. He had a good pedigree and a good reputation. Honestly, I think it’s just about winning."

Bradley quickly proved to be a wise investment. In his first and only full season with the club—he would leave for Swansea City of the English Premier League in the fall of 2016—Bradley guided HAC to a strong third-place finish in League 2. In most circumstances, that would have been good enough to earn the League 1 promotion that Volpe desired. But in a particularly heartbreaking turn of events, HAC finished tied for third with FC Metz. By way of the goals-scored tiebreaker, Metz earned the trip to League 1, while Le Havre was forced to remain.

That is where the club continues to reside today, but Volpe, as ever, is confident that the breakthrough will eventually come. He continues to be focused on rebuilding the business side of the club, and he’s confident that with the club’s grand history, its strong academy program and its stunningly beautiful stadium (The Stade Oceane, opened in 2012, is widely considered one of the best in France), all of the pieces are in place to return the club to its rightful place among the best in Europe.

Volpe has done his work. He’ll continue doing his work.

It’s just up to the players now, Volpe says, to make the dream happen.

“The players are obviously a critical part of what is required of us to succeed,” Volpe says. “Very much like employees in a typical business, if your players are motivated, they are more likely to succeed. It’s about matching the right skills to the right requirements. You need the right people on the bus, but also need them in the right seats.” 

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Lehigh men's and women's soccer teams in France

Lehigh men's and women's soccer teams travelled to France, where they visited with, and competed against, Le Havre.