Barcelona agree four-year shirt sponsorship deal with Rakuten

Barcelona have announced a new four-year sponsorship deal with Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten, which will replace Qatar Airways as the club's shirt sponsor from the start of next season.

The agreement could be worth as much as €61.5 million per season if the club win La Liga and the Champions League, which would top Manchester United's £52m-a-season deal with Chevrolet, which was the most lucrative in Europe last season, based on current exchange rates. Barca's current Qatar Airways arrangement brings in €33.5m.

Tokyo-based Rakuten is the largest e-commerce site in Japan and among the world's largest by sales. Its chief executive Hiroshi Mikitani, who was present at Wednesday's announcement, founded the company in 1997 and it now claims to have over 18 million customers.

President Josep Maria Bartomeu explained that the initial talks were initiated by Gerard Pique, who arranged a dinner in San Francisco last season with Mikitani.

"We were not in a hurry [to find a sponsor last season] because we wanted to find a beneficial agreement," Bartomeu explained at the presentation.

"This is an agreement with a global brand with a lot of experience who can contribute to the success of Barcelona. We hope the partnership brings unparalleled sporting and commercial success. This all started at a dinner in 2015 which was organised by Pique in San Francisco during the club's US tour.

"Gerard and his wife Shakira are very close friends with Mr. M Mikitani. He helped us a lot to meet Mr. Mikitani, so we are very grateful to him."

Barca didn't have a shirt sponsor at all until 2006, when they struck a deal to allow UNICEF's name to adorn their shirts. The United Nations programme didn't pay for the privilege, though, with the Catalan club instead donating €1.5m per year to support programmes for children all over the world.

That arrangement lasted for five years before, in 2011, Barca signed a deal with the Qatar Foundation. UNICEF remains linked with the club to this day and there is still an annual donation to the charity, but the name no longer appears on the front of the Blaugrana shirt.

Qatar Airways replaced Qatar Foundation on Barcelona's shirts in 2013, with the original deal expiring at the end of last season. After beginning the current campaign producing shirts with no sponsors, Barca and Qatar Airways eventually agreed to a one-year extension worth €33.5m.

Bartomeu added that he is open to continuing a relationship with Qatar, but there is nothing in place beyond the end of their current deal, which ends next summer.

However, Barca vice president Manel Arroyo said that the partnership with Rakuten does not cover the club's training shirts, academy kits or the women's team shirts. Therefore there could be room for Qatar to maintain its links with the club, who are also open to selling the naming rights to the Espai Barca project.