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La Liga hoping international outreach, continental glory can help league grow

Shaka Hislop remains convinced Real Madrid are locks to win La Liga, even with mounting injury concerns.

Selling Spanish football to the world means moving past local club allegiances and old ways of thinking, La Liga's head of international sport projects Fernando Sanz tells ESPN FC.

Throughout the past three years, La Liga has devoted considerable resources to growing its brand internationally, with ex-Real Madrid forward Raul Gonzalez the most high-profile face as country manager for the United States.

Such a global approach can lead to frictions back at home, with some very sensitive Blancos supporters annoyed whenever Raul promotes a rival club's achievements. An example came in early January when the Madrid-born forward sent a congratulatory tweet saying it was "a pleasure to enjoy his goals every day" after Barcelona's Lionel Messi had matched Raul's old record of scoring against 35 different La Liga teams.

This brought some heated replies on the social media site and elsewhere, similar to the noise generated last September when Raul had to explain his attendance as Barca opened their New York office.

Speaking to ESPN FC from his office in Dubai, Sanz said that Raul represents all of Spanish football, and his prominence has been very useful in helping promote La Liga as a whole.

"Spain is a country where, for better or worse, to criticise is the order of the day," Sanz said. "Raul does great work from his base in New York, he has greatly increased the visibility of La Liga in the U.S. You can never make everyone happy, there will always be someone who says something. He is a symbol of Spanish football, of Real Madrid of course, but he does magnificent work for us and he really enjoys being a La Liga ambassador."

Sanz himself knows plenty about the divides within Spain, being the son of former Real Madrid president Lorenzo Sanz, and a Bernabeu youth team graduate who then spent most of his playing career at Malaga. All tribal loyalties must be put to one side, he says, as the idea was for everyone involved in Spanish football to work together to promote the brand.

"We are very proud of having the best teams in the world, winning all the recent European club competitions. At the FIFA prizes the Best XI was mostly made up of players at Spanish teams. All that is very important for us at La Liga. But La Liga is 42 clubs, from Primera and Segunda. Of course Real Madrid and Barcelona are our best ambassadors, but there are also clubs like Atletico Madrid, Valencia or Sevilla -- who have won three Europa Leagues in a row. You have to tell all this to people, to show them."

Despite Spanish teams having won each of the past three Champions League and Europa League trophies, Sanz admits that La Liga still needs to work hard to catch up with the Premier League and other top sports brands in terms of marketing.

"There is a lot of rivalry between, for example, Formula 1, the NBA, the Premier League, Calcio, the Bundesliga," he says. "We are battling to find our place amid all that. Among the football sector we are the best, in terms of results, but we have a lot of things to improve too. The Premier League had a head start on us, we are only doing this three years. That is why we are now travelling around the world, and we have come a long way."

Fernando Sanz and Raul
La Lga's head of international sport projects Fernando Sanz, left, speaks with Raul at a promotional event for the league.

Since Javier Tebas became La Liga president in April 2013, the organisation has been working hard to build relationships with fans and partners on all continents. This has involved organising large-scale training camps for local kids, putting on huge open-air match screenings and meeting with sponsors and other local stakeholders.

"We've built agreements with people all around the world, from the Dubai Sports Council and the Abu Dhabi Sports Council, to the leagues in Bolivia and Colombia," Sanz says. "We want to introduce our brand to everyone, and work with the local football people in each country. The idea is to share things and mutually benefit. In Delhi, for example, we had an event with Frederic Kanoute with more than 10,000 people there watching last December's Clasico on a big screen."

The LFP World Challenge, a partnership with the Spanish government's overseas trade arms, has seen teams to play exhibition matches out-of-season, for instance Atletico in Australia, Celta Vigo in Uruguay and Eibar in the U.S.

La Liga also now have international offices in New York, Dubai, Shanghai, Johannesburg and New Delhi, with another planned for Singapore, all to make it easier to sell their message.

"We want to be close to those fans who are also part of Spanish football," Sanz says. "The idea is to have a base in the different countries, not just come in and out for events. It is important to have a presence, to meet people and talk to them. If you do not go to them, they do not know what your product is, and it is more difficult to generate value around it."

The next step Sanz suggests would be for the season-opening Spanish Super Copa to be played overseas, but he says that the Spanish Football Federation get to make the call on that.

"The Federation organise the Super Copa," he says. "From La Liga's point of view, [playing it outside Spain] would be a good option. There could be more income from it. But it is up to the Federation to decide."

Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan

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