Barcelona play Saudi champions Al-Ahli in a friendly in Doha on Tuesday, the Spanish club’s last major obligation of its four year shirt sponsorship deal with Qatar Airways.
Stars including Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luiz Suarez -- all of who have featured in Qatar Airways’ adverts -- are in Doha and are expected to play some, if not all of the match.
It is an extremely rare chance for Gulf fans to see some of the biggest names in world football, at least before the 2022 World Cup, and brought about because of the Gulf carrier’s sponsorship deal with Barcelona.
“It has been very successful for us, you know that we were part of Barcelona for the last three years, and this the fourth year,” said Qatar Airways chief executive Akbar Al-Baker on Monday.
“It has been a very good brand and reflection of Qatar Airways.”
All 25,000 seats at the Al-Gharrafa stadium in the north-west of Doha have been sold out for days, something Paris Saint-German could not manage at a smaller Doha stadium when they played a friendly against Inter earlier this year.
But as excited as the fans will be to see their favourites in the flesh, Qatar is also saying goodbye to Barcelona.
Next June the club’s sometimes turbulent sponsorship deal with the airline, worth around 35 million euros annually, ends.
From next season the “Blaugranas” will play their football with Japanese online retailer Rakuten splashed across their shirts, in a deal worth at least 55 million euros ($59 million) a year.
Noticeably, at a time when gas-rich Qatar is making spending adjustments due to lower energy prices, the nation’s airline could not match the price of its Japanese competitors.
“We have lost it unfortunately because somebody had more cash than us,” admitted Al-Baker.
- ‘Barcelona put Qatar on map’ -
They may have also lost out because of another reason -- television.
Barcelona may be a global brand but one thing holding back the commercial push of La Liga, especially in Asia, was kick-off times in the Spanish league.
Traditionally they played late at night local time, which meant they lost the audience in Asia and possibly Asian sponsors.
But now, either Barcelona or Real Madrid play every week at 4.15pm local time on a Saturday, meaning their matches can be watched in Asia.
Vicente Casado, La Liga’s managing director of international development, told a Doha conference earlier this month that the desire to build up worldwide audiences was behind the change in kick-off times.
“This is one of the big reasons,” he said.
La Liga is targeting a global television audience of three billion people by the end of next season -- the same as their rivals, the English Premier League.
Last season, “just” 1.2 billion fans globally watched La Liga games on TV, said Casado.
The deal with the Gulf carrier has been marked by negotiations over money -- leading to a belated one year extension to the contract announced earlier this year -- and arguments over Qatar’s treatment of the migrant workers building the infrastructure for the World Cup.
The row even saw Joan Laporta pledge to end the deal with Qatar if he was re-elected as club president.
But he failed and the shirt deal continued, and it has proved worthwhile for all parties, especially the airline says sports marketing expert, Antony Marcou.
“To be associated with Barcelona in this period, they have done exceptionally well,” said Marcou, boss of London-based marketing company, Sports Revolution.
“This sponsorship was about credibility, Barcelona put them on the map.”