U.S. business and finance heavyweight Forbes has crunched the numbers and produced a Top 10 of the world’s most highly paid professional footballers.
The players in question are set to collectively rake in a staggering $585 million in pre-tax earnings this season, which is up from $570m a year ago.
However, the big news is that Ronaldo has rallied and reclaimed the No. 1 spot from Messi, following the Argentine’s tumultuous summer transfer to Paris Saint-Germain that brought to an abrupt end to his 21-year association with Barcelona.
Meanwhile, Ronaldo pulled off a box-office move of his very own with an emotional homecoming at Manchester United, the venerable prodigal son returning to Old Trafford after some 12 years away.
In compiling its list, Forbes spoke with clubs, agents and brand sponsors to produce the data. While transfer fees are not included, the earnings displayed consist of player salaries for the 2021-22 season as well as any contractual bonuses and revenue from commercial endorsements.
The world’s ten highest-paid soccer players are expected to collect pre-tax earnings of $585 million this season, up from last year’s $570 million.
The top two entrants, though, won’t surprise you. https://t.co/mIjWVyzj0c
— Forbes (@Forbes) September 21, 2021
1. Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United)
Total Earnings: $125m
Just as on the pitch, Ronaldo is showing no signs of slowing down on the commercial front either, having established himself as the world’s most popular athlete — at least in terms of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter followers. Indeed, the superstar commands an enormous social media battalion of more than half a billion devotees worldwide.
His grand return to Man United has seen Ronaldo net a salary of $70m, with the rest of his earnings topped up by valuable commercial partnerships with the likes of Nike, Herbalife and Clear shampoo — as well as his packed portfolio of CR7-branded products, comprising everything from underwear to hotels.
Only three active sportspeople earn more money commercially per year than Ronaldo: Roger Federer ($90m), LeBron James ($65m) and Tiger Woods ($60m).
2. Lionel Messi (Paris Saint-Germain)
Total Earnings: $110m
Having headed the list last year, Messi has dropped below Ronaldo into second spot to cap off a summer of dizzying upheaval.
With his gargantuan earnings at Barcelona reported to be the catalyst that drove his expedited departure from his boyhood club, Messi took a significant pay cut to join PSG in August.
Fear not though, as the Argentine is still set to take home $75m in wages, which will be further supplemented by an estimated $35m in commercial endorsements from Adidas and Pepsi, among other brand partners.
Incredible scenes as Messi is presented to the PSG fans for the first time 🤯🙌
— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) August 11, 2021
3. Neymar (Paris Saint-Germain)
Total Earnings: $95m
Cementing third spot for another year, Neymar signed a new four-year contract extension with PSG earlier this year that will see the Brazilian remain at the Ligue 1 giants until 2025.
Then, as if the Parisians didn’t already boast one of the most stacked (and expensive) attacking lines in world football, they went and added Messi into the equation.
Neymar also happens to be the third-most-followed athlete on social media with 284 million followers across his various channels and platforms, including video-sharing app Triller — with whom the striker signed an exclusive content deal in November last year.
Total Earnings: $43m
The third PSG megastar to appear in the top four, Mbappe is also the youngest to appear in the list, and by some margin.
The young France international is now in the final year of his contract with the Parisian club and having snubbed an extension earlier this year, so it looks like he could be seeking a new challenge come 2022-23.
With Real Madrid said to be extremely keen on securing his signature come the end of the current campaign, maybe Mbappe will find himself ascending a rung or two up the Forbes list in good time.
Total Earnings: $41m
The only Premier League representative, Salah rounds out the top five in much the same way he did last year.
The prolific Egyptian forward has proved an unbridled success since moving to Liverpool from AS Roma in 2017, passing the 20-goal mark in every campaign and playing a pivotal role in delivering both the Champions League and a historic league title.
Salah also collaborated with long-term commercial sponsor Vodafone in February 2020 to become a UN ambassador for a program that provides digital learning support for refugees in his homeland.
Total Earnings: $35m
The Bayern striker just keeps getting better with age, having enjoyed several of the most prolific, goal-laden, record-shattering and success-filled seasons of his career since turning 30.
Among a raft of team and individual honours, Lewandowski was named Bayern player of the season in 2019-20 as well as being crowned German Footballer of the Year twice consecutively in 2020 and 2021.
And the Poland international became the first Bundesliga player to find the net in 13 successive games, forming part of a longer 19-game scoring streak that date backs to February — the last time he failed to notch during an appearance for his club.
He also presides over several business ventures, including his own personal RL9 clothing and coffee brands.
Total Earnings: $35m
Defying his advancing years, veteran midfielder Iniesta makes a surprise return to the list after signing a lucrative two-year contract extension with Japanese club Vissel Kobe in May — a deal that was formally announced on the Spaniard’s 37th birthday.
Having first moved to the J-League in 2018, former Barcelona maestro Iniesta is now contractually tied to Vissel until 2023, by which time he’ll be just shy of 40.
🇪🇸 The Spanish star and legend, Andrés Iniesta, has extended his contract with Vissel Kobe until 2023. ⚽️🎉
— J.LEAGUE Official EN (@J_League_En) May 11, 2021
8. Paul Pogba (Manchester United)
Total Earnings: $34m
Pogba may have dropped three places on the Forbes list in the space of a year, but his earnings remain unchanged, stuck fast at $34m while others have overtaken him.
The flamboyant Frenchman’s future at United remains as uncertain as ever, though it is suggested that following a glut of high-profile arrivals at Old Trafford (including Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Raphael Varane), Pogba is now considering a contract extension to stay on for long haul.
Total Earnings: $32 million
Previously in exile, Bale is now back in the fold at Real Madrid having previously fallen so far out of favour that he was forced to return to former club Tottenham on loan for the 2020-21 season.
Once (if only briefly) the most expensive footballer on the planet, the Welshman has made three appearances in La Liga so far this campaign, even scoring his first goal for Los Blancos in almost two years when he found the net against Levante last month.
Total Earnings: $29 million
It’s perhaps surprising to see Hazard rise into the top 10 given the malaise that seems to have engulfed the Belgian for the past two seasons — two seasons during which he sat out for a combined 59 games.
Indeed, since moving to Real Madrid from Chelsea for €100m in 2019, Hazard has been restricted to just 48 appearances in all competitions, scoring just five goals, and all due to a mix of niggling injury and lack of form.
There are rumours that Real are looking to offload Hazard and his considerable salary at the nearest possible juncture, which may well effect his position on this list come 2022-23.
Dropping out of the top 10
Two players featured in the list last season but have been overtaken by others. Antoine Griezmann — then of Barcelona and now back at Atletico Madrid was seventh, and Man United goalkeeper David de Gea sat in 10th.