The midweek country duty for international friendlies was a much-needed change of pace for FC Barcelona players after hard-fought back-to-back 1-1 ties in away games against Real Madrid in Copa del Rey and Valencia in La Liga. The tension filled Cup game against its archrival took a heavy toll, as Barça looked tired and at times disinterested at Mestalla and was outplayed by a Valencia team seeking forgiveness for a shameful 5-0 loss at home to Real Madrid two weeks before. If not for two great saves by Victor Valdes in the closing stages, Barça would have lost its second game in the last three league outings after starting the campaign with 19 wins and one draw.
Hopefully the change of scenery and the few days of relaxation helped recharge batteries, because after two relatively easy league games against Getafe and at Granada, Barça will visit much improved Milan (UEFA Champions League, Last 16, first leg), host tough Sevilla in league and play Real Madrid twice, in Cup and league. It gets harder and harder as Barcelona's goal of winning all three trophies leaves little room to maneuver and rotate players to give breaks to overused regulars. Luckily, with the exception of Xavi, out two weeks with a hamstring tear, the principals are healthy.
Fourteen of Barça's stars played for their countries on Wednesday: Alexis for Chile, which topped Egypt, 2-1, in Madrid; Alves and Adriano for Brazil, which lost to England (for the first time in 23 years), 2-1, at Wembley; Messi and Mascherano for Argentina, a 3-2 winner over Sweden in Stockholm; and nine Barça players (including seven starters), a record for Spain's national team, starred for the world and European champions in the 3-1 win over Uruguay in Doha, Qatar: Valdes, Puyol, Alba, Busquets, Iniesta, Fabregas, Pedro, Piqué, Villa. On his 100th appearance for the national team Carles Puyol was named captain by coach Vicente del Bosque, who tied Barcelona legend Ladislao (László) Kubala with 68 games in charge of La Roja. Fabregas opened the score and Pedro added two goals as Spain extended its unbeaten streak to 18 games.
Messi shook hands with Ibrahimović, who had politely joined the Messi Admirers Society before the game, but was held scoreless. (Those who watched the game are ready to swear that the ball Messi lobbed over Isaksson crossed the goal line before the Swedish goalie cleared it with a bicycle kick.) Instead, he was kissed on the head by an excited fan in a Barça Messi jersey that jumped the fence and ran onto the pitch, repeating a scene seen on Messi's arrival at the hotel on Monday.
But the big news of the week is the Thursday signing of Messi's contract extension with Barcelona through June 2018. This guarantees five more years of happiness in Barçaland. It has been reported that Messi's annual base salary will be €16 million net ($21.2 million). As the tax bracket for this level of income in Spain is 56%, it means that Barça will have to pay Messi's income tax of a little over €20 million ($26.5 million). A gross annual expenditure of almost $50 million for one player in Barça's books seems extravagant these days, but in Messi's case this is money well spent.
It is impossible to calculate what Messi is worth to FC Barcelona. While the club is still in debt about $400 million, it generated a record $602 million in revenue for the 2011/12 season on expenses of $536 million, with a net income of $59 million. Do you really think people pay the big bucks to watch Alves and Pedro?
Vladimir Moraru played soccer for 15 years and has watched it for 60. He hasn't seen a player like Messi and a team like FC Barcelona.