In the latest ‘Sport Industry Insider Meets…’, former Real Madrid defender Fernando Sanz discusses his career on and off the football pitch. Sanz has called the UAE home for the past five years and as La Liga’s General Director in MENA, has played a key role in expanding the commercial offering of Spanish football beyond Europe.
At Real Madrid, I lived the dream of many people.
There are so many incredible memories of my time in Madrid. Of course, I still remember my debut like it was yesterday – my first professional match was against Salamanca at the Santiago Bernabeu and we won 5-0. We lifted some big titles, like the Champions League against Juventus in 1998. This was a huge day in the history of Real Madrid as we had not won the European Cup for 32 years. Now Real Madrid are winning the Champions League all the time. When I won my first league, my Intercontinental Cup – all of these big trophies are great memories. At Malaga, too, we had some fantastic times; we won the Intertoto Cup which was the club’s first major trophy.
I went from player to club president overnight.
The end of my career was very unusual for a footballer. One day I was playing for Malaga and the next day I had taken over as president and owner. I think I could have continued as a player until I was 37 or 38 as I was in good physical condition but instead I was the chairman aged 32. Malaga were in a dire financial situation and I desperately wanted to save the club as they had been so good to me. It was a difficult dynamic as one day I was in the dressing room with my mates and the day after became the president and owner of the club that my mates were playing for.
Real Madrid taught me lessons that guided me in business.
Growing up at Real Madrid meant I was exposed to the idea of excellence from nine years old onwards. It is drummed into you. Success is expected which brings a great deal of pressure but actually what is more important is how you deal with failure. When we lost matches as a team we had to assess what went wrong and make sure we responded by winning next time we played. I think this mentality is very important to translate to business. Learning about pressure, success and how to overcome obstacles has helped me a lot.
People assumed a Sanz would be a good president.
When your father [Lorenzo Sanz] has been president of Real Madrid, there are certain expectations of success. But the situation when I took over Malaga was so horrible at the time that I was not sure I could make it work. When I became president I had no idea about the world of running a football club but I took advice and trusted my instincts. In four years we went from economic disaster to stable La Liga club. I managed to save Malaga and then sold the club to Sheikh Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar in 2010. This was the first time such a deal had been struck because at that time no one from outside Spain bought clubs in Spain.
When I arrived in the UAE, I spoke no English.
I moved to UAE in 2013 because I wanted a new adventure with my family. Also, I thought I really needed to learn English after finding communication a little difficult during the Malaga takeover negotiations. When you are a football player you focus just on the football in the training session and matches – that’s it. You miss out on things like learning new languages and I knew that English was the most important language in the world. I wanted my kids to learn perfect English, and me as well. But I didn’t take any lessons. Everything I have learned since is in business meetings, in conversations, listening to people. I am proud of this.
La Liga’s global expansion started in Dubai.
Almost immediately after I arrived to Dubai, the president of the La Liga, Javier Tebas, called me. He asked if I was interested in leading the international expansion of La Liga and of course I said ‘yes’! The first office of La Liga was in Dubai and since then we have moved to China, Shanghai, Johannesburg, New York, Nigeria, Singapore, Delhi etc. The story of La Liga has changed completely. At that time the income of La Liga was €700 million and we had around 700 million followers worldwide. The picture in 2018 was more than €3.5 billion in income and more than 2.6 billion followers. It is a dramatic change and it started in Dubai.
Now the Middle East is firmly on La Liga clubs’ radar.
A lot of clubs from Spain are looking to make special agreements or partnerships with clubs or organisations in the Middle East. These types of international agreements are very important and if they are interested I try to help make introductions in the region. La Liga has a lot of agreements worldwide with federations, leagues – from the Solomon Islands Football Federation to the Bolivian Football Federation. Locally of course we also have the Saudi Football Federation (SAFF) and the General Sports Authority. For Saudi Arabia, as with everywhere, it is very important to give and take knowledge in order to improve.
Real Madrid have always been popular but it is a different level now.
I played in Japan in 1998 in the Intercontinental Cup and it was clear then that Real Madrid had big support outside of Spain. For more than 50 years it has been one of the most important clubs in the world. In the past 20 years that support has expanded massively, the same with Barcelona. Back in the 1990s it was complicated for people in China, Japan or South America to watch La Liga; now, you can see every match of La Liga in every part of the world. We even changed the kick-off times of the matches so that people can better follow the league. It helps of course that Real Madrid and Barcelona are the two most successful clubs and that they have the best football players in the world.
La Liga is about more than Cristiano Ronaldo.
People ask me a lot about Cristiano but at the end of the day, we believe La Liga has the best football players and we are the best competition in the world. It’s sad loss for La Liga when players like Cristiano move to another competition, the same as Neymar last season. But our competition, our clubs, are in the hearts of a lot of football fans. Our figures since Ronaldo moved to Serie A are not worse, they are better – we have more fans, more income. La Liga will always be La Liga, Formula 1 was always Formula 1, NBA the same. One big football player moving to another competition does not stop the progress.
I hope we will see a La Liga game in the Middle East.
Because why not? La Liga is loved in the region; in the UAE for example we can see it is loved even more that the local league. Hosting a La Liga match here is not possible right now but maybe it will happen in the future – it’s important we work on that possibility. We live in a global world and we have to be in all parts of the world. The international expansion started because we wanted to be closer to our fans. We have La Liga fans, not just in Spain, but all around the world and we are proud of this global support. We need to work for them too.
We are entertainment, not just sport, and we compete with many non-football competitions – basketball competitions, car competitions etc. We need ways to help gain income; when you are a worldwide organisation you need a worldwide perspective.
The UAE is a fantastic place to work in sport.
I have a close relationship with the Dubai Sports Council, the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, and the UAE Pro League Committee. They have been great to work with and La Liga is grateful for their support. We are not here as an enemy, we are here as a partner and to try to help to grow and improve the local football too. Al Ain’s recent FIFA Club World Cup success is testament to that. I hope that in the next five years and hopefully next 10, 20 years, La Liga will still have an office in the UAE. The Middle East is very important for us at La Liga.