TWENTY-TWO years ago in May 2000, I was in the media section at a packed Stade de France in Paris, about to witness a historic Champions League final. There I was, seated among dozens of Spanish journalists, and I could feel their elation and pride - as well as from the rest of the 80,000-strong crowd - when the 2 teams made their way onto the pitch.
For the first time in the tournament's history, 2 clubs from the same nation - Real Madrid and Valencia, from Spain's top football league, LaLiga - were about to battle it out to be crowned the best in Europe.
The favourites that night were Real Madrid, while Valencia were determined to put up a good fight, especially after knocking out giants Barcelona in the semi-finals.
Before the kickoff, a Spanish journalist turned towards me and proclaimed: "You will see the buzz in Spanish football after this final."
The result wasn't a big surprise, as a Valencia team led by midfield dynamo Gaizka Mendieta had no answers to Real Madrid's quality, with Fernando Morientes, Steve McManaman and Raul scoring in a comfortable 3-0 win.
Spanish football did see a buzz, of course. There would be 2 more all-Spanish Champions League finals (in 2014 and 2016) between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, with each winning once. Since 2000, Spanish teams have won the Champions League 11 times. In May this year, Real Madrid won the trophy again when they beat Liverpool at the same Stade de France stadium.
At the international level, Spain won the Fifa World Cup for the first time in 2010, defeating the Netherlands with an extra-time goal by Andres Iniesta in the final.
All this success, however, has not fully dispelled the notion that LaLiga is mostly about 2 teams - Real Madrid and Barcelona - and the occasional heroics of the likes of Atletico Madrid, Villareal, Sevilla and Valencia.
That being the backdrop, there is plenty of catching up for LaLiga in terms of matching the wildly popular English Premier League in terms of entertainment, transfer activity, the ability to consistently attract the top talent, stadium attendances, and global TV viewership.
On its part, LaLiga's Singapore office is doing all it can to raise the league's profile with a series of events here in the coming months that focuses on fan and community engagement.
Among the initiatives planned is a live screening of the next El Clasico, one of the world's most-watched football matches, between Real Madrid and Barcelona in October. The last time these arch-rivals met was in a pre-season friendly in Las Vegas last month, when a sell-out crowd of 61,300 fans watched Barcelona win 1-0.
The next match, on Oct 16, is set to be played at a timing that is friendly to Asian time zones, and LaLiga Singapore hopes this will help bring more fans together to savour the action and watch the league's matches more regularly.
Among the big names currently plying their trade in LaLiga are French forward Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Polish striker Robert Lewandowski and Spanish midfielder Pedri (both Barcelona) and Portuguese forward Joao Felix (Atletico Madrid). There are several Asians in Spain's top division too, including Japanese winger Takefuso Kubo (Real Sociedad) and South Korean midfielder Lee Kang-in (Mallorca).
In Singapore, amateur footballers can look forward to participating in a camp where they can train under LaLiga coaches based here. The league's office is also in talks with local partners to organise football clinics.
At an event on Wednesday (Aug 24), LaLiga Singapore also announced that Denzel Ari Thrumurgan, a 14-year-old Singaporean, will be part of a pioneer batch of players to enrol at the LaLiga Academy in Madrid in September.
Denzel, who started playing when he was 5, will be the first Singaporean to train and study at ESC Madrid, a new sports and education facility in the Spanish capital. He said his aim is to one day turn professional and represent his country at international level.
Also in September, Valencia's youth team will fly to Singapore to participate in the JSSL Professional Academy 7s tournament. Five Spanish youth teams have taken part in previous editions of this competition, and this helped open the door for Singaporean footballer Saifullah Akbar to have a trial stint with Tenerife.
LaLiga has also been a strategic partner for Singapore's Unleash The Roar! Project since last November, with Ivan Codina, LaLiga's managing director of South-east Asia, Japan, South Korea and Australia, describing this as part of the league's "long-standing commitment" to Singapore's football ambitions.
"From what we have seen so far, Singaporean youths have massive potential, and we want to provide them with the platform to excel. As LaLiga Singapore celebrates our fifth anniversary, we will continue to engage with fans in Singapore more closely in the next few months through various initiatives," he said.