The world’s two top soccer players have flipped spots and wear new jerseys but have familiar paychecks, earning a combined $235 million this season.
By Christina Settimi
Before 24 hours had passed on the news that soccer great Cristiano Ronaldo had ditched Italy’s Juventus to join England’s Manchester United, the superstar striker became the bestselling player on the Fanatics sports merchandise site. He topped the sales of other top players who have jumped teams in recent years, including the NFL’s Tom Brady in 2020, the NBA’s LeBron James in 2018 and MLB’s Bryce Harper in 2019.
But his sweetest win may have been outselling soccer rival Lionel Messi, who just weeks earlier had announced he was leaving Barcelona to join Paris Saint-Germain.
It’s the kind of selling power that comes from being the world’s most popular athlete—one with more than a combined half-billion followers across Facebook (149 million), Instagram (344 million) and Twitter (94.3 million)—and helped him reclaim the top spot on this year’s Forbes ranking of the highest-paid soccer players in the world.
Ronaldo is set to earn $125 million before taxes in the 2021-22 season, with $70 million coming from salary and bonus for his return to United, where between 2003 and 2009 he delivered three consecutive Premier League titles and a Champions League crown. The rest comes from personal endorsements and partnerships with brands including Nike, Herbalife, Clear and his ever-expanding CR7-branded portfolio that includes perfume, underwear, eyewear, hotels, gyms and more. Only three other active athletes make more commercially: Roger Federer ($90 million), LeBron James ($65 million) and Tiger Woods ($60 million). And Ronaldo is showing no signs of slowing down, with the 36-year-old still outperforming plenty of his opponents in Europe, most of whom are 10 years his junior: Ronaldo marked his return to Man U’s Old Trafford by hitting the back of the net twice. He now has four goals in three games on the season in the world’s best league.
Knocked out of the No. 1 spot is his longtime rival, the 34-year-old Lionel Messi, who after 21 years at Barcelona—and a soap-opera year of departure drama—jumped to PSG, where he will be paid $75 million this season, helping put him at No. 2 on the list with $110 million. Messi was forced to jump after Spain’s La Liga clamped down on FC Barcelona’s wage spending, forcing the club to end negotiations with its record six-time world’s top player of the year, who had played for Barça since he was 13 years old. He’ll pad his PSG paycheck with an estimated $35 million in endorsements from the likes of Adidas, Pepsi, watchmaker Jacobs & Co. and Budweiser, which he just picked up last year under a three-year deal.
In total, the ten highest-paid soccer players are expected to collect pretax earnings of $585 million this season, up from last year’s $570 million. Salary and bonus make up the bulk of the total—$415 million—and are up a modest 2.6% from last year as most clubs continue to be cautious in the face of uncertainty around emerging Covid-19 strains. In May, UEFA, Europe’s governing body of soccer, released a report that said its top-flight clubs were facing a whopping $8.5 billion pandemic-related revenue loss, putting a damper on major player movement.
Still, the big-ticket jumps at the top of the list show the lucrative earning power of global soccer’s top players, who outearned their peers in North America’s MLS by a factor of ten.
PSG now claims three of the world’s five highest-paid players, including the 29-year-old Neymar, who lands at No. 3 once again with $95 million, and the 22-year-old Kylian Mbappe, who is No. 4 with $43 million. Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah, 29, rounds out the top five with $41 million. This year, the 37-year-old Andres Iniesta returns as the only player from a non-European team, landing at No. 7 with $35 million after signing a two-year contract extension with Vissel Kobe in Japan, his club since he left Barcelona in 2018.
To compile our list, we spoke with clubs, players’ agents, commercial sponsors and worldwide soccer experts. All figures are converted to U.S. dollars using the current exchange rate and include salaries (pretax) for the 2021-22 season, bonuses and endorsements. Transfer fees are excluded.
After Ronaldo finished last season with Juventus as the top goal scorer in Series A and won the award for the best player in the European Championship, Manchester United announced he was coming home to Old Trafford, where he previously played from 2003 to 2009, scoring 118 goals in 292 games for United. Over his 18-year career, he has won 32 major trophies, including five UEFA Champions League titles, the UEFA European Championship for his native Portugal and seven league titles in England, Spain and Italy, making him the first player to win titles in the three countries. In early September, the 36-year-old set a record as the greatest goal scorer of all time in international soccer when he hit the back of the net for the 110th time in his country’s World Cup qualifying win against Ireland. Ronaldo has made over $1 billion in career earnings before taxes, the first team-sport athlete in the world to hit that milestone.
It was the end of a glorious era when Barcelona announced that Messi would not continue with the club because of La Liga financial obstacles. Over his 21 years with the only team he ever knew, Messi scored 672 goals and had 268 assists on his way to 35 titles and 78 awards (including a record six Ballon d’Or trophies for the sport’s best player). He also pocketed $875 million in salary and bonus and another $350 million from endorsements for a total of more than $1 billion over his career. His new salary at PSG is a cut from what he would have made if he could have stayed at Barça but keeps him the sport’s highest-paid player on the pitch, along with Neymar, with who he reunites in Paris after being teammates in the Catalan capital from 2013 to 2017.
Neymar traded playing in Messi’s shadow in Barcelona for PSG in 2017, with a record $263 million transfer fee, and helped take the club to its first Champions League final last year. This May, the 29-year-old signed a four-year contract extension to stay in the French capital until 2025 and remain among the highest-paid on the team. He then helped the club court Messi, which led to their eventual reunion. After an early exit of his contract with Nike over a reported assault allegation from a Swoosh employee, Neymar signed a shoe deal with Puma that has celebrated his flashy style. This March, he debuted a “creativity collection” of shoes and apparel in loud color schemes. Last November, the social media sensation—he is the third-most-popular athlete on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, with 284 million followers—left TikTok and signed a deal to make video content exclusively as an ambassador for Triller.
This past spring, the 22-year-old Frenchman turned down a contract extension with PSG that would have given him a bump to put him on par with Neymar’s pay and kept him with the club until 2024. The 2021-22 season is the last on his current contract. PSG hopes signing Messi is incentive for the Ligue 1 three-time Golden Boot winner to negotiate to stay, but it may be time for him to venture beyond and claim the bright spotlight that is rightfully his to inherit. Mbappe has amassed more career goals than either Ronaldo or Messi had at his age. He is also making more than they were at his age, too, in part because commercial sponsors have recognized his potential earlier on. Last year, EA Sports gave him the solo cover of FIFA 21, making him one of the youngest to ever do so. This year, it announced he will be back as the face of FIFA 22, making him the first since Cristiano Ronaldo to get back-to-back covers.
With two years remaining on the 29-year-old’s current deal, Salah and Liverpool are in negotiations to keep the star striker at Anfield. He’s proven a legend on and off the pitch. Since joining from Roma in Italy in 2017, he has been among both Liverpool and the Premier League’s top goal scorers. Last October, he scored his 100th for his club, becoming the fastest to do so in its history. No other Premier League player has scored more over the same time. He has also become the face of Muslim athletes in the game, and an important one at that. A recent academic study found that after Salah joined Liverpool, hate crimes in the city dropped by 16%, and Liverpool fans halved their rates of posting anti-Muslim tweets relative to fans of other top-flight clubs.
The 33-year-old’s contract expires in 2023, and his performance as back-to-back German player of the year is prompting rumors of suitors. The last time he failed to score for Bayern was in February; he is currently on a 19-game scoring run and this month became the first Bundesliga player to score in 13 straight home matches. He is making a run at the title of best player in the world—not only on the pitch but also off it: He has launched his RL9 brand of clothing, adding to his endorsement earnings from Nike, Huawei and Head & Shoulders, among others.
Iniesta moved to Japan on a two-year contract with Vissel Kobe in 2018 after a 22-year career with Barcelona came to an end. The midfielder has since helped the club win the Emperor’s Cup in 2019, qualify for the AFC Champions League for the first time and win the Japanese Super Cup in February 2020. This past April, on his 37th birthday, he signed a contract extension to keep him with the club until 2023.
Ten months ago, Pogba’s future at United was uncertain. But since the signing of Cristiano Ronaldo and his French international teammate Raphael Varane, reports suggest he is leaning toward signing a contract extension. The 28-year-old is in the middle of a ten-year shoe contract with Adidas that is worth an estimated $45 million.
After clashing with his manager Zinedine Zidane at Real Madrid, Bale was sent on loan to Tottenham last season. Zidane’s resignation at the end of the 2020-21 season after the club failed to win one trophy paved the way for the 32-year-old to return to the Bernabeu for the last season on his current contract. Since proudly displaying a banner that read: “Wales. Golf. Madrid. In that order.” after his country qualified for Euro 2020, Bale has been linked to a post-soccer career on the links. He has been endorsing TaylorMade since 2020, even taking part in a full-day fitting on YouTube with the golf-club maker.
In 2019, Real Madrid paid Chelsea $118 million to sign Hazard to a five-year contract that puts him on par with Gareth Bale with a $26 million annual paycheck. But the Belgian international has struggled, missing 59 games in his first two seasons with the club. Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti recently questioned his ability to play in two successive games. There is a growing rumble in the media that the club is trying to unload him, as soon as January. Off the pitch, Hazard is the poster boy for McDonald’s in his native Belgium and has deals with Nike and Nissan.