The English Premier League (EPL) may be the biggest show in town in Thailand but Spain’s La Liga is determined to make inroads in its quest to be the second biggest league in the country.
But La Liga delegate to Thailand Jose Maria Gotor insists the intention is not for La Liga to play second fiddle to the EPL, but to the Thai League.
Jose Maria has been in Thailand for two years in a role that also covers neighbouring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. So far, he is happy at the progress being made as Spanish football’s popularity continues to rise.
“The reason why I moved here and my main goal is to get La Liga closer to our Thai fans and grow our fan base,” Jose Maria told ThaiFootie.
“We realise that we have a lot of fans in Thailand. Currently on Facebook, we have over 600,000 Thai followers.
“Until two years ago, our focus was mainly on Spain but our president became aware of the importance of fans outside of Spain and decided to carry out this international expansion.
“We haven’t traditionally been very active in this part of the world but we believe that we have huge growth potential here. We know that Thais are crazy about football, which is the No. 1 sport in the country.
“According to a recent study by Nielsen Sports Research, Thailand came second highest in a survey that asked people whether or not they were interested in football – at 78 per cent.”
In the same study, footballing superpowers like Italy (67 per cent), Brazil (60 per cent) and Germany (60 per cent), trailed Thailand, highlighting the country’s potential.
However, in a nation where the EPL has been the most popular league for many years, La Liga has a huge challenge in its hands as it attempts to gain more of a market share. Any survey of Thai fans’ favourite teams is likely to see Liverpool and Manchester United as the Top Two, rather than Barcelona and Real Madrid, with Buriram United and Muang Thong United much further behind.
But Jose Maria is undeterred by the EPL’s dominance and wants to see the Thai League overtake both the EPL and La Liga.
“The EPL has been here for a very long time and they are very deep rooted among Thailand’s football fans,” he said. “But we have a huge football fan base in Thailand and as our president always says, we don’t want to be No. 1 in Thailand, we don’t want to be the top league, we want to be the second league. We want to collaborate with the Thai League so the Thai League can be number one. That’s the way it should be and that’s our approach.
“We want to collaborate with the local football industry to help them grow and this way there will be opportunities for everyone so football fans will have many choices and they will have more access to La Liga in their own language.
“One of the first things I did when I came to Thailand was to sign an MOU with the Thai League and the Football Association of Thailand (FAT). That was my way to let people know that La Liga was here to collaborate with the local football industry, not just coming here and doing our thing and leaving. We’re here to stay.”
MOUs are sometimes considered nothing more than an opportunity for publicity and it can sometimes be difficult to identify concrete results from such agreements. But Jose Maria is keen to point out that La Liga’s actions back up the words on the document.
“We have done many activities, not just signing and taking a photo,” he said. “I took two Thai national youth teams to Spain for the first time in history. One of them was the U16 team last August. In two weeks, they played four friendly games against La Liga teams. They were trained by La Liga coaches.
“This year in April, we took the U15 national team to different cities and played friendly games again. We participated in some Thai League workshops for clubs and staff, bringing some experts from Spain, from clubs and from La Liga.
“We are currently exploring other opportunities for collaboration. Last year in September, at La Liga headquarters, we welcomed the full executive committee of the FAT for a knowledge sharing summit. We showed them how we work in different areas.
“We also work with the Sports Authority of Thailand in the youth league. Last year, we brought four La Liga coaches to Thailand to conduct a clinic for Thailand youth league coaches. They also scouted the best players from the four different age groups of the Thailand youth league. We’re basically trying to cover the whole local football industry.
“It’s a very big job and we need to go step by step. I think the Thai League are doing a great job. The Thai football industry is growing fast and in the right direction. Anything we can do to support, we will be at their disposal.”
The star power of La Liga continues to draw the best players in the world, with Eden Hazard a recent example of how the EPL still can’t compete with the opportunity to play for Real Madrid.
Cristiano Ronaldo may have swapped La Liga for Serie A last year but Jose Maria insists that there has been no discernable impact.
“To be honest, we haven’t suffered any damage in that sense,” he said. “Players come and go, they get older. You need to be prepared to replace them at some point. We’ve always had the best players in the world in La Liga. We have had Johan Cruyff, Alfredo Di Stefano, Ronaldo, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Maradona. They all come and go, it’s part of life but new players will come and replace them.
“We can see Joao Felix has just signed for Atletico Madrid. He is just 19 years old and he looks very promising. We have also signed Eden Hazard, another amazing player.”
While the top sides from the major European leagues continue to visit other countries in Asia for lucrative friendly matches, Thailand has seen a slowdown in such showpiece events, with Liverpool the last big name to visit back in 2015.
Jose Maria is hopeful that Thai fans will soon get to see a La Liga side, with some of biggest having visited in previous years.
“In the past, we have had Real Madrid, Barcelona, U.D. Almeria and Atletico Madrid in Thailand,” he said. “I hope we can have another La Liga team in Thailand soon. There are always different opportunities and clubs want to come. We just have to find the right moment and the right timing and I’m sure soon the fans will be able to enjoy some La Liga teams in Thailand.”
While we may see some of the world’s finest in Thailand should a La Liga club sign up for a friendly, there may also be opportunities for Thai players to follow in the footsteps of Teerasil Dangda. The striker spent six months on loan at UD Almeria back in 2014. While it was not a hugely successful move, it showed that Thai players were on the radar of Spanish clubs.
Jose Maria thinks Thai players have the potential to thrive in Spanish football due to similarities in how the countries play the game.
“The way Thai players play is similar to the Spanish style,” he said. “We don’t play a physical game. We need smart players who understand the game and I see common ground between Thai players and La Liga.
“Asian football is growing, and better players are being produced. We were traditionally more focused on other parts of the world, for example, Central and South America for cultural reasons and the language.
“But La Liga clubs are realizing that there is great potential in the region. This year, there has been a Japanese boom in La Liga. Real Madrid signed Takefusa Kubo, Barcelona signed Hiroki Abe and Real Zaragoza in the second division signed Shinji Kagawa.
“La Liga clubs are paying attention to what’s happening in this part of the world. Right now, it’s Japan but it will eventually be other countries in the region. At some point, I’m sure some La Liga clubs will again target Thai players. “