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Highest-paid soccer stars 2021: How much do Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi make?

They may have joined new clubs this summer, but Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi continue to be eternal rivals, competing for records, trophies, fans and dollars. The battle for the latter category is reaching some mind-blowing figures.

Forbes published the latest edition of its list of the highest paid soccer players in the world, adding up the gross figures of each player’s base salary and bonuses with endorsement deals and other commercial partnerships. It was those two again at the top.

How did Forbes writer Christina Settimi come up with the list? The publication consulted with clubs, agents, sponsors and soccer experts in the know. 

MORE: Breaking down Ronaldo’s contract with Man United

Ronaldo vs. Messi: Who earns more money?

Forbes calculates that Messi has the higher gross base salary at PSG ($75 million) compared to Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester United ($70 million). But Ronaldo surpasses him when it comes to the other sources of income, lifting him to the No. 1 spot in the ranking.

The article cites Ronaldo’s deals with the likes of Nike, Herbalife and Clear on top of what he already pulls in through his personal CR-7 portfolio. That total of $55 million is fourth-best among all active athletes and better than Messi, who Forbes estimates rakes in $35 million in endorsements through brands like adidas, Pepsi and Budweiser. 

Don’t weep for Messi: He banked over $1 billion during his 21 years at FC Barcelona in Spain, including $875 million in salary alone. Ronaldo was the first athlete in team sports to surpass that $1 billion mark, according to Forbes.

Then again, Ronaldo is the world’s most popular athlete as measured by social media followers which total more than half a billion. Here’s where that popularity pays off: The report says Ronaldo sold more jerseys via sports merchandise retailer Fanatics after his move to Manchester United than any other superstar who made a high-profile move in recent years, including Tom Brady (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), LeBron James (LA Lakers in 2018) and Messi (to PSG in 2021).

MORE: Inside the numbers of Messi’s PSG contract

Messi was the first to make a high-profile move on August 10, when he signed with PSG as a free agent following the expiration of his contract with his long-time club FC Barcelona. A few weeks later it was Ronaldo who was transferred from Italian club Juventus to Manchester United in a $28 million transaction. Man United is the club where Ronaldo became a global star between 2003 and 2009.

Who else is on the Forbes money list?

What jumps out about the Forbes Top 10 list is the top half. Of the first four names, three are PSG players: Neymar (No. 3) and Kylian Mbappe (No. 4) are right behind Messi in the rankings. It’s common knowledge that PSG has deep pockets: It is owned by the Emir of Qatar via the Qatar Sports Investments group. But PSG’s club president insists that the French side is in compliance when it comes to European soccer’s financial fair play rules.

But the drop-off is considerable after Neymar’s $95 million in total compensation. Mbappe doesn’t even make half that amount ($43 million total). But the EA Sports FIFA 22 cover boy is still just 22 years old, and Forbes says that he’s already ahead of what Ronaldo and Messi were earning at his age.

MORE: When does Ronaldo play for Man United and Messi for PSG?

The other names on the list are no surprise except for 37-year-old Andres Iniesta, who continues to play his trade in Japan. He’s the only player on the list based outside of Europe.

Real Madrid fans will wince at the final two names in the Top 10, since they’ve not been major contributors in recent years. The club brought in manager Carlos Ancelotto to see if he can change that.


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