The rivalry between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo is unlike any other in modern-day team sports. No two athletes have competed against each other at the highest level and dominated for as long. Not Magic and Bird. Not Brady and Manning. Not Crosby and Ovechkin.
Over the last 11 seasons, playing in the world’s most popular sport, the soccer superstars have combined to win ten FIFA’s Player of the Year awards (split evenly), and finish second nine times. They have won 9 of the last 10 European Golden Shoe awards for the top scorer on the continent (Messi 5, Ronaldo 4).
While playing in Spain’s top-flight La Liga for the past 9 seasons, their clubs have won 8 league titles (Messi’s Barcelona nabbed 6 and Ronaldo’s Real Madrid 3), and in the lone year Atletico Madrid won it, Barcelona was runner-up and Cristiano Ronaldo was the league’s top scorer. Their clubs have gone to the UEFA Champions League final (considered the toughest competition in the soccer) seven times in 9 years. Ronaldo has won that trophy 4 times with Real Madrid and once with former club Manchester United. Messi has won it 4 times with Barca since making his debut with the first team in 2005. The only major title eluding both is a World Cup win. (Odds favor Messi’s Argentina over Ronaldo’s Portugal during this month’s competition in Russia.)
Off the pitch, the 31-year old striker raked in another $27 million in endorsements from sponsors around the globe – from German sportswear giant and lifetime partner Adidas, to Qatar-based telecommunications outfit Ooredoo, to Chinese dairy brand Mengniu. U.S.-based PepsiCo pays him as a pitchman for several of its brands including its signature soft drink, Lays, and Gatorade. He prominently features in the latter’s World Cup promotions including what the company is calling the “biggest international campaign in the brand’s 50-plus year history,” to promote its first sport-specific product, Gatorade Football Energy.
Ronaldo came in No. 2 as the sport’s top earner (and No. 3 among the world’s top athletes) with $108 million, a mere $3 million short of Messi. His contract with Real Madrid pays him over $60 million in salary and bonus for the next three seasons. After a three-peat Champions League victory last month, he cast doubt over his playing future tellingBeIN Sports, “It was very nice to be in Madrid. In the next few days, I will give an answer to the fans who have always been by my side.”
More than a few days have since passed without an answer. One possibility is few clubs can afford him now. Another is fewer can match what he wants (i.e. what his nemesis makes). A likely one is parties are renegotiating for him to stay put.
Rightly, the two best have also been the sport’s top two highest-paid players since 2014, and in the three years prior, were among the top 3, behind celebrity athlete David Beckham.
For the first time this year, Messi edged out Ronaldo for the No.1 spot (and ranked No.2 among all athletes in the world behind boxer Floyd Mayweather) with earnings of $111 million. Thanks to a contract extension he signed in November that commits him to Camp Nou through June 2021, he hauled in $84 million in salary and bonus before taxes, a 50% bump over last year. For perspective, his playing wages alone would rank him just behind former teammate and No. 3 top earner, Neymar, who made $90 million after transferring to Paris Saint-Germain last summer. For comparison closer to home, his paycheck is twice the combined paychecks of teammates Luis Suarez (no. 7 on our list with $26.9 million total earnings, $19.9 in salary and bonus) and Gerard Pique (no. 17 with $20.8 million total earnings, $17.5 million in salary and bonus).
Whatever the short game is with his contract, the 33-year old Portuguese winger’s long game is strong thanks to his endorsement income. Last year he made $47 million as a human billboard, 34% more than last year. There is no sign of that revenue stream slowing down. One reason why is his lifetime deal with Nike, worth upwards of $1 billion. On top of that, he has a bourgeoning signature line of CR7 underwear, fragrance, jeans, shoes, hotels, soon-to-open restaurants (in Brazil) and recently announced gymnasiums that will last long after his playing days. The gravy: he pitches for Herbalife, Clear shampoo, EA Sports and luggage maker American Tourister, and an array of other regional companies.
One reason the endorsements keep coming is because the Portuguese winger remains the most popular athlete in the world on social media, with 322 million followers combined on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. He is also the most active. Through the first five months of 2018, he generated 570 million engagements across the three social networks, more than 370 million ahead of Messi and 270 million ahead of Neymar, per market researcher Nielsen.
“What’s so special about Ronaldo’s social content, however, is not the sheer quantity of posts across all platforms, but how commercially driven they are. What’s even more surprising is how his fans don’t seem to mind,” said Max Barnett, Global Head of Digital, Nielsen Sports. “Branded content and product endorsements will easily rack up millions of engagements which is one key reason why sponsors love him and will continue to do so as his ever-increasing online fanbase grows.”
By Forbes’ estimates, Ronaldo has amassed $750 million over 16 years playing in top-flight European leagues and Messi $640 million over 13 years with Barcelona. They can each surpass $1 billion in earnings on their current contracts, both which expire in June 2021. The first athlete to do this was golfer Tiger Woods, who reached the $1 billion mark in 2009, 13 years after turning professional. (He made $43 million to rank No. 16 on The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes.) Brand Beckham is still striving for it, worth over $800 million today.
The longest-tenured member of our highest-paid soccer players list is Wayne Rooney, who has ranked 13 years in a row and who currently comes in at No. 8 with earnings of $27 million. He has pulled in about $275 million over his career. Last summer the 32-year old left Manchester United as the club’s all-time leading goal scorer and rejoined his first club, Everton. Any day now he is expected to be released from his 2-year contract there and to sign with MLS’ D.C. United, a move that will most likely result in him falling off our list next year.
Former Man U teammate Zlatan Ibrahimovic crossed the pond to join the Los Angeles Galaxy of MLS this past March and held on to a spot, having made $21 million to rank No. 16. The 36-year old Swedish striker also will most likely fall off the list next year due to his MLS salary. Interestingly though, his star power is on the rise. The highlight reel of his first two MLS goals in his debut match and every press conference and U.S. television appearance he has made since joining the league explains why. In the last six months he has picked up endorsement deals with Samsung, Visa, and Bethard.
One star missing from our list is Mohammed Salah who made a spectacular debut for Liverpool after joining from Roma last summer. The Egyptian winger fell two goals short of Messi for the European Golden Shoe award and helped lead the Reds to the Champions League final, where he suffered a shoulder injury at the hands of Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos and left the pitch in tears. Still, he finished the top-scorer in the Premier League, won its season’s best player award, landed one of the covers of Sports Illustrated’s World Cup Preview edition, and propelled himself into the world’s best player debate. While most are betting he can give Ronaldo and Messi a run for their money, the proof has yet to show up in his wallet. He made $9 million in total earnings last season. His sponsors include Adidas, Vodafone, and Pepsi.
To compile our list of the world’s highest-earning soccer players, we spoke with clubs, players’ agents, commercial sponsors and soccer experts in the U.S. and Europe. All figures are in U.S. $ and include soccer salaries, bonuses, and endorsements. Transfer fees are excluded. Earnings are for the period June 1, 2017 to May 31, 2018. Unless noted, performance metrics are for all league competitions.