BARCELONA: Spanish champions Barcelona, to the relief of swath of supporters, are parting company with Qatar Airways as main sponsor.

Instead the slot on the blaugrana shirt will be taken up for four years from 2017-18 by the Japanese e-commerce giant Rakuten. The deal will be worth a basic €55m per season, with an option to extend for a fifth year.

The sum is higher than Real Madrid’s partnership with Emirates Airline and close to the €75m-per-year contract between Chevrolet (General Motors) and Manchester United.

Rakuten, which has become Barcelona’s ‘global innovation and entertainment partner’, has said it would seek to extend the Catalan giant’s digital presence. It wanted the partnership to be ‘mes que un sponsorship’ – a play on Barcelona’s club motto.

Club president Josep Maria Bartomeu said had started in 2015. He added: “We are delighted with our agreement with Rakuten, a global brand in innovation whose experience and know-how in the fields of big data, communications and e-commerce will contribute to the future success of FC Barcelona.

Members’ vote

“This agreement puts us at the forefront of sports club sponsorships, which have always been an objective for the current board of directors.

“We hope this partnership between Rakuten and FC Barcelona brings unparalleled sporting and commercial success, and helps the club achieve its goal of being a reference point worldwide.”

Last month Barcelona members had approved extensions of deals with Qatar Airways and Nike. At the club’s 2016 ordinary general assembly, a one-year extension of the Qatar Airways deal, through to the end of the 2016-17 season, was rubber-stamped.

Of those present, there were 483 votes in favour of the extension and 251 votes against the agreement, which is worth €33.5m. Sixty votes were blank. The agreement was first revealed in July, while a 10-year extension with kit provider Nike was also ratified, through to the end of the 2027-28 campaign.

Qatar Airways replaced the Qatar Foundation which had been the club’s main sponsor from 2011 to 2013 as part of the club’s association with Qatar Sports Investments.

United Nations children’s fund UNICEF had  become Barcelona’s first-ever front-of-shirt sponsor in 2006.

A convoluted statement from Hiroshi Mikitani, the company’s chairman and chief executive, said: “As main global partner, Rakuten is set to power our global brand strategy and, as FCB’s first-ever global innovation and entertainment partner, we are looking to bring the collective power of our brands like Viber, Wuaki, Ebates, Kobo, and PriceMinister to build an innovation framework that will deliver innovative solutions and services to fans, members and players.”

Rakuten’s Viber, the global mobile messaging and calling app, will also become Barcelona’s official communications channel.