In 2013, LaLiga opened its first global office in Dubai, aiming to capitalise on Spanish football’s growing fervour in the Middle East. Fast forward six years and LaLiga has built quite an empire, with 11 international offices across the world.
The Gulf remains both a captive and lucrative market for LaLiga, with Real Madrid and Barcelona in particular commanding a huge Arab following. Former MENA General Director Fernando Sanz and his team worked hard to develop the league’s profile and that sterling work was recently recognised, with the ex-Real Madrid centre-back promoted to Director of Global Institutional International Relations.
Stepping into his shoes this summer was Maite Ventura, a long-term colleague and former LaLiga delegate for the UAE. Aiming to continue LaLiga’s upward trajectory in the region, Ventura believes the league is in excellent shape.
“There has been a huge growth in terms of audience,” Ventura tells Sport Industry Insider. “We have been working with the best partners face-to-face and importantly have been close to the fans we have in the Middle East. We are about to reach 15 million followers on our social media channels for the Middle East and North Africa. It is an impressive number.”
Unsurprisingly given the brand’s popularity, organisations across the Middle East have been very forthcoming about penning partnerships with LaLiga; healthy working relationships now exist with the likes of the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, Dubai Sports Council, West Asian Football Federation and Jordan Football Association.
LaLiga’s portfolio is certainly diverse, with the company championing social projects in the Zaatari Refugee Camp in Jordan, women’s football in Kuwait and a high-performance youth academy in the UAE. The latter was LaLiga’s first dedicated facility overseas. For Ventura, the glut of potential partners is a welcome problem to have.
“There’s a big interest in this region to partner with LaLiga and we are always exploring all opportunities. Our door is open to collaborate but, of course, they have to share with us the same philosophy or the same mission, in order to be able to build something together.”
While all these commercial relationships are valuable, it is the football product that remains LaLiga’s most important marketing tool. In China, that has been exemplified by the enormous spike in support from the country since winger Wu Lei signed for Espanyol earlier this year.
The Arab world’s biggest icon, Mo Salah, currently plies his trade in the rival English Premier League and the absence in LaLiga of a hero from the Middle East is something Ventura hopes will change soon.
“I would absolutely love to have one player from the Middle East and North Africa, playing in LaLiga,” Ventura says. “With Wu Lei at Espanyol and [Japanese midfielder] Takashi Inui at Eibar you have seen the clubs become really powerful in these countries.
“In China, the games of Espanyol are more followed than El Clasico even so this shows how players can help raise awareness of certain clubs. For us, it would be amazing if we could have any player from any country in the Middle East playing in LaLiga.”
Talent discovery initiatives like the much-vaunted ‘du Football Champions’ in the UAE could mean this becomes a reality sooner than later.
“We have been working with du for several years now and had more than 7,000 players registered last time,” Ventura explains. “It’s been a powerful tool for us to detect and select the best talents.
“They come to the LaLiga High Performance Centres in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, where they have the opportunity to train all year long at the highest standard. At the end of every season, the best players get the opportunity to travel to Spain to play some games and train some LaLiga teams.
“Although we haven’t had a LaLiga player from the Middle East yet, there has still been a major impact because of the High Performance Academy. We have had 10 players awarded professional contracts outside of Spain and this is a great success. For the UAE it is a fantastic platform.”
A major challenge for LaLiga in the Middle East and elsewhere is the hegemony of the English Premier League, which has had an openly global approach for the past two decades. But for Ventura, all competition is healthy.
“Our aim in MENA is to be the second-most followed league after each country’s local league. We are always striving to promote football beyond our borders and create a community of fans across the world.
“We are already the best league in the world in terms of having the best clubs, the best players in the sporting sphere. We’re focused on being competitive and remaining competitive. We are constantly innovating and looking to collaborate and improve, no matter what other leagues are doing or how other leagues are working.”
A crucial part of LaLiga’s role is to promote the clubs beyond Barcelona and Real Madrid, whether it is helping to increase their fanbase or connect with potential new sponsors. In recent years, Saudi companies MBuzz and Jawwy have sponsored the shirts of Leganes and Levante respectively, and that is seen as just the beginning.
“Could there be a LaLiga match in the Middle East? I don’t see why not.”
“LaLiga is the association of 42 clubs, not only the first division but also the second division. Our responsibility, and our mission is to generate business opportunities and to promote the brand of the 42 clubs. Equally. Any help that is required by them, we are here to help. Our clubs have been fighting and making a huge effort, and we are confident that they can continue to do so.”
A much-publicised aspect of LaLiga’s expansion plans has been the idea of playing a competitive game in the United States. While that remains a priority, Ventura believes bringing a match to the Gulf could be a natural next step.
“We are still working hard to make the idea of an overseas match in North America a reality. Afterwards we can hopefully bring LaLiga to other parts of the world. The conversation now on the table is about North America, but afterward, who knows. Could there be a match in the Middle East? I don’t see why not.”