MADRID: In the bowels of Estadio Civitas Metropolitano, home of La Liga giants Atletico Madrid, adorning the wall of one of the club’s many conference rooms, is a poster of a player that many present-day followers of the club would struggle to name.

The Moroccan Larbi Benbarek — who represented his country of birth as well as France internationally — was not just one of the first players from an Arab or African background to became a successful professional in Europe, but arguably one of the most important figures during a golden period for the Madrid club.

From 1948 to 1953, the “Black Pearl” was one of Atletico’s finest players and, alongside legendary coach Helenio Herrera, played a pivotal role in landing consecutive La Liga titles in 1949-50 and 1950-51.

Andoni Moreno, the club’s commercial director, smiles as he points to Benbarek’s black-and-white photo, and says that these days the club’s links to the Middle East are far more widespread — from taking part in the Spanish Super Cup in the Saudi capital and a partnership with Riyadh Air, to Atletico jerseys being worn around the Kingdom and academy prospects from Morocco following in Benbarek’s footsteps.

“It (Spanish Super Cup) was amazing. I mean, when you see a full stadium following a national title, it was impressive to see the environment, the atmosphere, it was like a real derby, but in Saudi, so it was a great experience,” Moreno said. “And I think we had a great show, real competition match between Real Madrid and Atletico. Unfortunately, we didn’t win, but we were very close and the show for the fans, I think, was amazing, on site, on TV.”

Atletico lost 5-3 to Real Madrid in the first semifinal at Al-Awwal Park Stadium, before the recently crowned La Liga champions went on to lift the Super Cup with a 4-1 win over Barcelona.

“We were close but we couldn’t win, but I think the most important thing was that the experience for the fans was fantastic, was real. And I think it is one of the best ways to keep growing internationally, increasing our fan base,” Moreno said.

La Liga is working closely with clubs to push its brand name in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, but just as importantly, to ensure that individual clubs are establishing their own identities across the region as well.

“We started to see Atletico jerseys in Saudi, and it was something that was almost impossible 10 years ago,” Moreno said. “So now you see the potential of the brand, with great activations on site, plenty of fans there, we had jerseys on site in Nike stores.

“We work very close with (La Liga), it’s part of the expansion plan. These kinds of activations, on site, watch parties, playing games, having your stars there. We did many activations with our main partner, which is Riyadh Air, so we visit the office, we visit touristic places, with legends like David Villa. This is part of ambitious strategy to develop our brand and to become bigger in the region.”

Such developments have been accelerated in no small part by the remarkable success Atletico has enjoyed under Diego Simeone, at a time when Real Madrid and Barcelona continue to be arguably the world’s two most popular clubs.

“The last decade or 12 years, I would say, it’s been incredible how the club has been able to keep growing, competing against these two big clubs in the same league, and also in a European international competitions,” Moreno said. “And it’s not easy, because we must be much more efficient. That’s the key, on the pitch and off the pitch, because the size in terms of followers, in terms of incomes, is more than double, but we have found the balance. Obviously the sport side is crucial, it’s the key, keep performing at that level, always qualify for Champions League (by being) third, even second or first, in La Liga.”

While Simeone’s team has many international stars, Moreno says an important factor in the team’s recent success is the club’s academy and intelligent scouting.

“One of our key pillars is the academy,” he said. “If you see our (first team) squad, we have currently four players from our academy. And then if you see some of the main clubs in Europe, there are many players coming from the Atletico Academy. This is one very important pillar. Of course, we go to the market, we see international players, and we have some stars. But this balance, this efficiency is very important for us. If you see our current squad, most of our players have been with us for a long period. So we try to keep them in order to have the sustainability on the pitch. Also our manager (has had) the longest period for a manager in Europe, I would say. It’s part of the success of the club.”

These days, there may not be a Benbarek — yet — at the club, but Atletico’s scouting department has maintained a link with players from North Africa, as it does with the rest of the world, over the years.

“We have done it for a long time,” Moreno said. “We have brought players from all countries to our academy. Thomas Partey, who’s playing in Arsenal, the Hernandez brothers (Lucas and Theo), they come from France, so we have had historically players from other countries. And now that we are getting more global, it’s important to have scouts everywhere, trying to find talent at the proper age.

“Our structure in the academy is huge, it’s one of the biggest academies in the world. We have more than 70 teams here in Madrid, so we have to manage a lot of boys and girls. We try to bring talent from everywhere,” Moreno said.

The 20-year-old Moroccan Abde Raihani recently made his debut for the first team, replacing Stefan Savic in the 2-0 loss to Deportivo Alaves. Another Moroccan, Salim El Jebari, 20, is also on the club’s books.

“(On April 21) we had a new player from the academy (Raihani) with an Arab connection, family. The Arab world is getting more and more powerful within the football industry. So obviously, it’s one of the key regions, markets, for players.”

Off the pitch, Atletico Madrid are also keen to strengthen their brand interests in the region, and in particular Saudi Arabia.

“We are trying to find the best global companies in each sector,” Moreno said. “Obviously, Riyadh Air, within the airline sector, for the coming future is going to be one of the key players, and we are very proud and happy to be their first sports partner. But of course we are very interested to keep growing in the region through companies, because for us it’s very important to have really relevant companies in different industries, because they are our speakers globally and in the region.”

Despite the recent defeat in the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, Atletico Madrid have secured qualification for the first expanded FIFA Club World Cup next year, Mundial de Clubes FIFA 25, thanks to their record in the Europe’s top competition over the past four years. Moreno called being the only La Liga club, alongside Real Madrid, at the tournament in the US, a “milestone” and highlighted that Atletico could well face Arab teams there, including Saudi’s Al-Hilal, Egypt’s Al-Ahly, Morocco’s Wydad Casablanca and Tunisia’s Esperance.

Atletico will also have a stake in the 2030 FIFA World Cup being co-hosted by Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

“Our stadium is going to be one of the main stadiums in the World Cup,” Moreno said. “We have a very big project around the stadium for not only football, but sport and entertainment; it is going to be probably one of the best destinations for international fans. They want to come to Madrid, enjoy the city, enjoy all their activities apart from football, and also watch a World Cup match. For us it is very important, this World Cup, for the team (Spain) but also for the venue.”

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