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The World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players 2019: Messi, Ronaldo And Neymar Dominate The Sporting World

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This past season marked the end of an era in soccer, or football to those outside of the United States whose eyes were about to bleed.

For the first time in a decade, not a single matchup took place between the two greatest players in the world, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Their epic 30-match run of El Clásico clashes, the name for the fixtures between Barcelona and Real Madrid, bitter rivals and the world’s most valuable soccer clubs, came to an end last summer when Ronaldo left Spain’s La Liga to join Juventus in Italy’s Serie A.

Also for the first time in over a decade, neither Messi nor Ronaldo won FIFA’s coveted Player of the Year Award, voted on by the international media, national team coaches and national team captains. Luka Modric, Ronaldo’s former Real Madrid teammate and captain of the Croatian national team, took that trophy home.

But as sad as the loss of this rivalry was for fans—including Messi, who admitted to missing competing against Ronaldo—it seemingly had little effect on either superstar’s performance or purse.

READ MORE | Lionel Messi Claims Top Spot on Forbes’ 2019 List Of The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes

For the second year in a row, Messi takes the top spot among the World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players, with earnings of $127 million. Thanks to the contract extension he signed in November 2017 that commits him to Camp Nou through June 2021, he hauled in $92 million in salary and bonuses before taxes, a 9.5% bump over what he made on the pitch last year.

Part of that increase came by way of performance-incentive pay. The 32-year-old striker topped La Liga’s charts for both goals (36) and assists, marking his fifth season of 35 or more goals. It was also his sixth season in which he scored 50 or more goals across all club competitions.

He shone brightly in the club’s run-up to quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, with the Argentine the top goal scorer of that competition, hitting the back of the net 12 times in 10 appearances.

To an already-rich list of sponsors off the pitch, including lifetime partner Adidas, Mastercard and PepsiCo soft drink and snack brands, Messi added high-end watchmaker Jacob & Co. to his portfolio this year. His first signature timepiece is a limited edition of 180 starting at $28,000.

More recently, he partnered with MGO—a brand portfolio company whose chief creative officer is Tommy Hilfiger’s sister, Ginny Hilfiger—to create a signature line of clothing. It is expected to launch in July on the Messi Store, a global e-commerce site.

READ MORE | World’s Highest-Paid Athletes 2019: What Messi, LeBron And Tiger Make

Ronaldo earned $109 million to come in at No. 2 among the sport’s top earners. It is a negligible increase over his tally last year, a result of taking what amounted to a pay cut to join Juventus after nine years with Real Madrid. His current four-year playing contract pays him a gross annual salary of $64 million and contains no bonus or incentives, per sources close to the deal. But hold back your tears for him.

After nine years with La Liga’s Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo surprised the world on July 16, 2018, with news of his move to Juventus in Italy’s Serie A. (Photo credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images) GETTY

Under the Italian tax code, Italian-sourced income, like the salary Ronaldo earns playing for Juve, is taxed at an ordinary top rate of 43%. Outside earnings are treated differently, though, and are subject only to a single, flat tax of about $115,000.

This structure bodes well for Ronaldo, a walking billboard who pitches products head to toe and earned $44 million last year doing so, almost entirely outside of Italy. It also softens the blow he was dealt this past January when he pleaded guilty to tax fraud in Spain for concealing income from commercial image rights earned between 2010 and 2014 and was ordered to pay a $21.6 million fine.

The 34-year-old Portuguese winger is making out well on the pitch, too. He scored 21 goals to lead Juventus to its eighth straight Serie A title and in the process became the first player to win league titles in Italy, Spain and England.

By Forbes’ estimates, assuming he keeps his playing contract and current sponsors and partners (amid an open sexual assault case filed against him in U.S. federal court), Ronaldo is on pace to become the third active athlete to crack the $1 billion mark in career earnings this upcoming season.

Golfer Tiger Woods was the first to do so in 2009, followed by Floyd Mayweather in 2017. (Michael Jordan joined the billionaire athlete club in retirement largely because of his deal with Nike and is now worth $1.9 billion because of his ownership of the Charlotte Hornets.)  

READ MORE | Masters Champion Tiger Woods: By The Numbers

Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar Jr. made $105 million last year to round out the top three highest-earning soccer players. His transfer from Barcelona to the French capital stands as the most expensive in the world at $263 million, and his five-year, $350 million total in salary and bonuses will keep him near the top of this list through June 2022.

Neymar partnered with Diesel to launch a signature fragrance in May 2019. (photo credit: Julien Hekimian/Getty Images for Diesel) GETTY

If a report by state-owned public television station France 2 is to be believed and his contract contains a behavior clause bonus, the 27-year-old Brazilian striker may not see all of that money. In the past three months, he’s made international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

In April, UEFA handed him a three-match suspension for insulting match officials on Instagram after Paris Saint-Germain lost to Manchester United in the Champions League. He will miss half of the group-stage competition next season. The same week, he was caught on video getting into an altercation with a fan in the stands after PSG’s loss in the French Cup and was subsequently handed a three-game suspension by his own club.

Following that, his national team stripped him of his captaincy for this summer’s Copa America tournament. Then, in early June, a woman filed a rape claim against him in Brazilian court, stemming from an encounter she had with the soccer star in Paris in May. (Neymar has denied the allegations.)

This week, PSG’s chairman publicly warned Neymar through an interview with France Football that he only wants players “willing to give everything for the shirt” and that “players will have to be more responsible than before.”

Since Forbes began tracking athletes three decades ago, this is the first time the top three highest earners in soccer also sit on top of the list of The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes.

One reason is that they are the three most popular athletes in the world on social media and produce high-quality, commercially driven posts for their sponsors that garner them big bucks.

Ronaldo is the most popular and engaging among them. His 370 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter transcend sports and make him one of the most followed people in the world. For perspective, he gained 48 million new followers in the past year, an amount that exceeds the total follower count of Manchester United and the French World Cup champion Paul Pogba (ranked No. 4 among the World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players, with total earnings of $33 million).

During his last season with Real Madrid, Ronaldo generated $474 million in value for his sponsors on social media—an amazing return on their $47 million investment in him—and another $274 million for then-club sponsor Adidas.

This past season also ushered in the dawn of a new era. While his social media following has a long way to go to reach the stratosphere of the three highest-paid, PSG forward Kylian Mbappé (No. 7, $30.6 million in earnings) is generating both the quantity and the quality of buzz that position him to join their ranks, and even jump them.

The 20-year-old newcomer, the youngest on our list, had his global introduction at last year’s World Cup, scoring four goals in seven matches to help lead his French side to a championship victory. At 19, he was the second-youngest player to score a goal in the tournament, behind Brazilian soccer legend Pelé.

After winning the 2018 World Cup’s Best Young Player Award, Mbappé returned to his club and won Ligue 1’s 2019 Player of the Year Award as its 2018-19 top goal scorer. In between, he picked up endorsements with Hublot, which made him its first active player ambassador, and French baby food maker Good Gout. He hobnobbed with David Beckham. He graced the cover of Time. And he donated the $500,000 World Cup bonus he earned to a French hospital that organizes sporting events for disabled children.

His largest sponsor, Nike, also a French national team sponsor, is already thinking ahead to the 2026 World Cup, which will be cohosted by the United States. Mbappé will be just 27 then, and may very well be the only one on our current list still playing for his national team. The time to start exposing him to the market is now. 

Nike invited Mbappé out to its headquarters and escorted him on a mini-West Coast tour last week, complete with meetings with sporting legends LeBron James, Steve Nash and Brandi Chastain, and arranged for his Hollywood debut—throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium.  

“We see Kylian as a global superstar, and certainly the U.S. is a key component of the global marketplace,” said Heidi Burgett, senior director of global communications at Nike. “We certainly think Kylian has a very bright future with his joyful and fast brand of football, as well as his strong sense of purpose on and off the pitch.”

Modric, the reigning FIFA player of the year, missed our list this year. But the Croatian national team captain agreed to a new contract with Real Madrid in February that ties him to the Bernabeu until June 2021 and could land him a spot here next year. His salary reportedly matches that of his teammate Sergio Ramos, who ranks No. 19 on our list with total earnings of $21.9 million, of which $19.9 is in salary and bonus.

Nike is Modric’s largest sponsor. In 2018, he admitted in Spanish court to tax evasion and agreed to pay a fine in excess of $1.3 million. He used the same lawyer as former teammate Ronaldo.

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The World’s 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019

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The Dallas Cowboys kick off training camp this weekend as the defending NFC East champions. Last season ended with a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which marked 23 straight years the Cowboys were shut out of the NFC Championship game. Only the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions have longer title-game droughts.

But America’s Team remains the biggest must-see show in sports. Nine of the 50 highest-rated sports TV broadcasts in 2018 were regular season Cowboys games, helping goose ratings for CBS, NBC and Fox (the Patriots were the only other team with more than four games among the top 50).

Cowboys fever helps owner Jerry Jones generate an estimated $340 million in sponsorship and premium seating revenue at AT&T Stadium, twice as much as any other team.

While Jones’ team has come up short on the field the past 20-plus years, the Cowboys are the world’s most valuable sports franchise for the fourth-straight year at $5 billion. Jones has capitalized on the insatiable appetite for all things Cowboys.

READ MORE | The World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players 2019: Messi, Ronaldo And Neymar Dominate The Sporting World

“On and off the field, in season and out of season, there is a small soap opera going on every day,” Jones told my colleague Mike Ozanian last fall during a taping of ForbesSportsMoney on the YES Network. “Everyone knows that marketing, especially in this day and time, is just another way to promote the circus, so to speak.”

Jones has always been a visionary since he bought the Cowboys for $150 million 30 years ago. He revolutionized stadium sponsorships; broke away from the NFL’s shared merchandise revenue system; launched a stadium-management firm, Legends Hospitality, with the New York Yankees; and opened a $1.5 billion practice facility in 2017.

The New England Patriots' Tom Brady
The New England Patriots’ Tom Brady MADDIE MEYER/GETTY IMAGES

The result: Dallas sits atop the globe’s richest sports league with profits, in the sense of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, of $365 million in 2017, a record for any sports team.

The cutoff to rank among the world’s 50 most valuable sports teams is $2.075 billion, up $125 million from last year and $1.2 billion from five years ago. The values of sports teams have skyrocketed on the backs of ballooning media rights deals and more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreements that restrain player costs. There are 52 teams across all sports worth at least $2 billion, up from one, Manchester United, in 2012.

The NFL is still the most dominant sports league when it comes to the worth of its franchises. More than half of the top 50 are football squads. Credit the monster media-rights deals with the likes of CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and DirecTV that paid out more than $260 million per team last year. The TV haul is a nice cushion to easily cover teams’ biggest expense item, player costs, before any tickets, sponsorships, beer or replica jerseys are sold. The cap on player salaries was $177 million last season (each team is also on the hook for $40 million annually in player benefit costs).

READ MORE | Simidele Adeagbo: What I Learned From The Most Terrifying Winter Olympics Sport

The New York Yankees moved up three spots to just behind the Cowboys with a value of $4.6 billion, up 15%. The Bronx Bombers head seven MLB teams that made the top 50. The Yankees are surging on and off the field. They own the best record in the American League this season, after posting 100 wins last year. Attendance at Yankee Stadium jumped 10% last year to 3.5 million fans, the highest for the club since 2012. Viewership of Yankees games on the YES Network was 57% higher than any other baseball franchise in 2018.

Real Madrid ranks third at $4.2 billion and highest among the eight soccer clubs in the top 50. The La Liga club was the last sports team deemed the world’s most valuable before the Cowboys secured the title starting in 2016. Real banked more than $100 million for winning its second-straight Champions League crown last year.

Don’t look for Real Madrid to set any records with regard to the richest sports team sale, currently $2.3 billion for the sales of the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. Real is owned by its more than 90,000 members, who elect a club president. It’s a similar structure at rival Barcelona, which ranks fourth overall with a value of $4.02 billion.

The Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry
The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen CurryGREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES

NBA teams have made the most dramatic moves this decade. The New York Knicks headline nine hoops teams in the top 50 this year. Their $4 billion value, up 11%, ranks fifth among all sports teams. The Los Angeles Lakers ($3.7 billion) and Golden State Warriors ($3.5 billion) also cracked the top 10. In 2012, the Lakers were the most valuable NBA team at $900 million and ranked 35th out of all sports franchises. The Knicks were the only other NBA team in the top 50 in 2012.

Three NBA franchises have been sold for at least $2 billion since 2014 (Nets, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers). The prior NBA-record sale price was $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks, which closed three months before Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion blockbuster purchase of the Clippers.

READ MORE | The 10 Most Notable New Billionaires Of 2019

Investors salivate at the NBA’s international prospects, with 300 million basketball players in China and annual revenue growing outside the U.S. at a rate in the high teens. The 2016 CBA locked in player costs at 50% of the league’s surging revenue, and league-wide profits are up tenfold over the past seven years by Forbes’ count.

The world’s richest sports teams are almost all swimming in cash these days. Barcelona, which lost $37 million due to excessive player costs, was the only top-50 team to post a loss on an operating basis, and every other team turned a profit of at least $25 million. More than half of the teams made more than $100 million, led by the Cowboys at $365 million.

The franchise values below are based on Forbes’ published valuations over the past 12 months. Team values reflect enterprise values (equity plus debt). No teams from the NHL, Nascar, MLS or Formula One made the top 50. The highest-ranking franchise outside of the NBA, NFL, MLB and European soccer was the New York Rangers at 72nd with a value of $1.55 billion.

Gridiron Rules

The NFL remains the most dominant sports leagues with more than half of the 50 most valuable sports franchises, but the other major sports chipped away at its dominance during the past year.

More Than a Game

The discount bin is empty when shopping for teams in the major sports leagues. Every NFL, NBA and MLB franchise is now worth at least $1 billion.

Candlestick Chart
Trophy Assets

Manchester United was the world’s only pro sports team worth more than $2 billion in 2012. Now there are at least 50, including almost every NFL team.

Pictograph 1
The World's 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams
RICH SCHULTZ/GETTY IMAGES, ADAM GLANZMAN/MLB VIA GETTY IMAGES, BOB LEVEY/GETTY IMAGES

50 New Orleans Saints (NFL)

  • Value: $2.08 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Gayle Benson
  • Operating Income*: $115 million

49 | Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL)

  • Value: $2.08 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Shahid Khan
  • Operating Income: $63 million

47 (tie) | Kansas City Chiefs (NFL)

  • Value: $2.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: Lamar Hunt Family
  • Operating Income: $60 million

47 (tie) | St. Louis Cardinals (MLB)

  • Value: $2.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 11%
  • Owner: William DeWitt Jr.
  • Operating Income: $65 million

46 | Arizona Cardinals (NFL)

  • Value: $2.15 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Wiliam Bidwill
  • Operating Income: $74 million

45 | Liverpool (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.18 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owners: John Henry, Tom Werner
  • Operating Income: $128 million

44 | Los Angeles Clippers (NBA)

  • Value: $2.2 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owner: Steve Ballmer
  • Operating Income: $40 million

43 | Dallas Mavericks (NBA)

  • Value: $2.25 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 18%
  • Owner: Mark Cuban
  • Operating Income: $99 million

42 | Arsenal (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.27 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 1%
  • Owner: Stanley Kroenke
  • Operating Income: $102 million

41 | Los Angeles Chargers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.28 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: Spanos Family
  • Operating Income: $48 million

38 (tie) | New York Mets (MLB)

  • Value: $2.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 10%
  • Owners: Fred & Jeff Wilpon, Saul Katz
  • Operating Income: $30 million

38 (tie) | Carolina Panthers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: David Tepper
  • Operating Income: $62 million

38 (tie)| Houston Rockets (NBA)

  • Value: $2.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owner: Tilman Fertitta
  • Operating Income: $103 million

37 | Brooklyn Nets (NBA)

  • Value: $2.35 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owners: Mikhail Prokhorov, Joe Tsai
  • Operating Income: $53 million

36 | Indianapolis Colts (NFL)

  • Value: $2.38 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: James Irsay
  • Operating Income: $67 million

35 | Minnesota Vikings (NFL)

  • Value: $2.4 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Zygmunt Wilf
  • Operating Income: $90 million

34 | Oakland Raiders (NFL)

  • Value: $2.42 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owner: Mark Davis
  • Operating Income: $25 million

33 | Miami Dolphins (NFL)

  • Value: $2.58 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Stephen Ross
  • Operating Income: $56 million

32 | Chelsea (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.58 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 25%
  • Owner: Roman Abramovich
  • Operating Income: $127 million

31 | Seattle Seahawks (NFL)

  • Value: $2.58 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 6%
  • Owners: Pat Allen Trust
  • Operating Income: $71 million

30 | Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.59 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owners: Daniel Rooney Trust, Art Rooney II
  • Operating Income: $85 million

29 | Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

  • Value: $2.59 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Stephen Bisciotti
  • Operating Income: $107 million

28 | Atlanta Falcons (NFL)

  • Value: $2.6 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owner: Arthur Blank
  • Operating Income: $113 million

27 | Green Bay Packers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.63 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 3%
  • Owners: shareholder-owned
  • Operating Income: $62 million

26 | Denver Broncos (NFL)

  • Value: $2.65 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owners: Pat Bowlen Trust
  • Operating Income: $106 million

25 | Manchester City (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.69 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 9%
  • Owner: Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan
  • Operating Income: $168 million

24 | Philadelphia Eagles (NFL)

  • Value: $2.75 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owners: Jeffrey Lurie
  • Operating Income: $114 million

22 (tie)| Boston Celtics (NBA)

  • Value: $2.8 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owners: Wycliffe & Irving Grousbeck, Robert Epstein, Stephen Pagliuca
  • Operating Income: $100 million

22 (tie)| Houston Texans (NFL)

  • Value: $2.8 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Robert McNair
  • Operating Income: $161 million

21 | New York Jets (NFL)

  • Value: $2.85 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Robert Wood Johnson IV
  • Operating Income: $130 million

19 (tie) | Chicago Bears (NFL)

  • Value: $2.9 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owners: McCaskey family
  • Operating Income: $100 million

19 (tie) | Chicago Bulls (NBA)

  • Value: $2.9 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owner: Jerry Reinsdorf
  • Operating Income: $115 million

18 | San Francisco Giants (MLB)

  • Value: $3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owner: Charles Johnson
  • Operating Income: $84 million

17 | Bayern Munich (Soccer)

  • Value: $3.02 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: -1%
  • Owners: Club members
  • Operating Income: $129 million

16 | San Francisco 49ers (NFL)

  • Value: $3.05 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: Denise DeBartolo York, John York
  • Operating Income: $106 million

14 (tie) | Chicago Cubs (MLB)

  • Value: $3.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 7%
  • Owners: Ricketts family
  • Operating Income: $87 million

14 (tie) | Washington Redskins (NFL)

  • Value: $3.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Daniel Snyder
  • Operating Income: $122 million

12 (tie) | Los Angeles Rams (NFL)

  • Value: $3.2 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 7%
  • Owner: Stanley Kroenke
  • Operating Income: $68 million

12 (tie) | Boston Red Sox (MLB)

  • Value: $3.2 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 14%
  • Owners: John Henry, Thomas Werner
  • Operating Income: $84 million

10 (tie) | Los Angeles Dodgers (MLB)

  • Value: $3.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 10%
  • Owners: Guggenheim Baseball Management
  • Operating Income: $95 million

10 (tie) | New York Giants (NFL)

  • Value: $3.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: John Mara, Steven Tisch
  • Operating Income: $149 million

9 | Golden State Warriors (NBA)

  • Value: $3.5 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 13%
  • Owners: Joe Lacob, Peter Guber
  • Operating Income: $103 million

| Los Angeles Lakers (NBA)

  • Value: $3.7 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owners: Jerry Buss Family Trusts, Philip Anschutz
  • Operating Income: $147 million

7 | New England Patriots (NFL)

  • Value: $3.8 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 3%
  • Owner: Robert Kraft
  • Operating Income: $235 million

| Manchester United (Soccer)

  • Value: $3.81 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: -8%
  • Owners: Glazer family
  • Operating Income: $238 million

5 | New York Knicks (NBA)

  • Value: $4 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 11%
  • Owner: Madison Square Garden Company
  • Operating Income: $155 million

| Barcelona (Soccer)

  • Value: $4.02 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: -1%
  • Owners: Club members
  • Operating Income: –$37 million

| Real Madrid (Soccer)

  • Value: $4.24 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owners: Club members
  • Operating Income: $112 million

| New York Yankees (MLB)

  • Value: $4.6 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 15%
  • Owners: Steinbrenner family
  • Operating Income: $30 million

| Dallas Cowboys (NFL)

  • Value: $5 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Jerry Jones
  • Operating Income: $365 million

Forbes; Kurt Badenhausen

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Football, Beer And Selfies With Thierry Henry

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French football legend Thierry Henry was in South Africa to watch the 2019 UEFA Champions League final on television screens with dizzy fans. 


A teaser campaign on Heineken South Africa’s Twitter page unveiling the identity of a legendary footballer kicks off the 2019 season of the UEFA Champions League.

It certainly piques the attention of South African fans on social media who tentatively await the unmasking of this legend – French footballer Thierry Henry. 

Even as fans attempt to piece the mysterious mosaic, the Champions League 100 club member is already making his way from Europe to watch the much-anticipated UEFA Champions League tournament final on June 1, on a giant television screen with his South African fans, at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit race track in Johannesburg.

South Africa’s vibrant football culture finds expression in all venues, from the dusty make-shift fields that continue to play a crucial role in community life in townships, to the manicured green pitches of gargantuan stadiums.

As Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC take to the field for the final leg in Spain, here in Johannesburg, all eyes are on Henry, who can barely focus with all the attention on him. But these are interactions the former FC Barcelona and Arsenal FC striker would not trade for anything else – even watching the match in the comfort of his own home.

“It is always nice to have these moments with South African fans. Usually, I would be at home watching the game, but now, I am in South Africa. It is a bit surreal to watch the Champions League that happens in Europe, in Africa,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. 

Watching the all-English final on South African soil evoked nostalgia, and Henry reminisces the beginning of an illustrious career in football. 

“I went to Monaco [to play] as a youngster; that was the choice. I didn’t know we were going to make the Champions League. I was just trying to be a football player,” he says.

 Henry then moved to Arsenal, and then Barcelona where he ended up winning the Champions League.

The bulk of the retired footballer’s career as a player was in the English Premier League for Arsenal FC that saw him as Arsenal’s all-time top scorer, with 228 goals, for the club.

“The moves were based on competing, trying to get the best out of myself and get the best out of my teammates,” he says.

Despite a two-nil loss on Henry’s first professional appearance for Monaco in 1994, first impressions should make a lasting impact, he says. 

“For me, it is always the first game, it is very important because you are now on the scene and you need to make sure that everybody can see what you are about in that particular moment. I remember losing the first game but I had an impact and the rest is history.”

On June 1, Liverpool FC was crowned champions in the 64th season of the premier football tournament.

The win for the English team meant more beer, selfies and snapshots with Henry for the few lucky South African soccer fans, and again, the rest is history. 

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World’s Highest-Paid Athletes 2019: What Messi, LeBron And Tiger Make

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Major League Baseball had a staggering run this year when, over a four-week period, a quartet of its biggest stars—Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Mike Trout—signed blockbuster, long-term deals worth a combined $1.3 billion. They ranked as four of the biggest playing contracts in the history of sports.

The deals will create generational wealth for their families, but only Trout, ranked 17th with $50.6 million, cracks the top 20 of the world’s highest-paid athletes.

The difference: Those four baseball stars generate barely $10 million in combined endorsement income while the top earners in basketball, soccer, tennis and golf all individually bank at least $30 million from sponsors annually; eight of the 11 best-paid athletes come from those four sports.

READ MORE | Lionel Messi Claims Top Spot on Forbes’ 2019 List Of The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes

Most of the athletes ranked above Trout follow a similar path: Reach the highest levels of a global sport, and marketers swarm with endorsement deals to pitch their wares around the world.

Barcelona soccer legend Lionel Messi leads the way on this year’s list with $127 million, including $35 million off the pitch from partners Adidas, MasterCard, PepsiCo and more. Messi translates into every language.

Messi is only the fourth athlete to land in the No. 1 spot over the past 19 years, joining Tiger Woods (12 times), Floyd Mayweather (4) and Cristiano Ronaldo (2).

Messi succeeds Mayweather, who failed to get in the ring for a pro bout over the past 12 months but is likely still counting last year’s $285 million haul, which he earned largely from his 2017 bout against UFC star Conor McGregor.


READ MORE | The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes


Messi is joined by fellow global soccer icons Cristiano Ronaldo ($109 million) and Neymar ($105 million) at the top this year. It is the first time that soccer players have ranked as the top three earners in sports since Forbes began tracking athlete earnings in 1990.

Elite stars in other global sports are also extremely marketable on any continent. Roger Federer ranks fifth with $93.4 million, including $86 million off the court.

Federer will turn 38 in August and is a dinosaur in tennis years. Yet Japanese apparel brand Uniqlo signed the 20-time Grand Slam winner in 2018 to a 10-year contract worth $300 million. Federer has a dozen sponsors looking to tap the cash-rich tennis fan demographic.

Basketball’s leading trio of LeBron James ($89 million), Stephen Curry ($79.8 million) and Kevin Durant ($65.4 million) rank seventh through ninth, having earned a combined $130 million beyond their respective playing salaries.

READ MORE | The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players 2019: LeBron James Leads With $89 Million

Their shoe deals, with Nike (James, Durant) and Under Armour (Curry), are by far the biggest endorsement for each player and dwarf what an MLB player can earn pitching baseball cleats and gear.

Sportswear brands, including Adidas, have used NBA stars in China for more than a decade to help establish a foothold in the world’s biggest market, sending big names like James and Durant there every summer on promotional tours. The NBA estimates 640 million people in China watched some kind of NBA programming during the 2017-18 season—that’s nearly twice the population of the U.S.

Golf is another sport that reaches almost every corner of the globe, and no golfer has benefited more than Tiger Woods: He has made $1.4 billion during his career from endorsements and appearance fees, more than 10 times his prize money, and his net worth is a staggering $800 million. Woods ranks 11th on this year’s athletes list with earnings of $63.9 million, including $54 million off the course.

Tiger roared back over the past 12 months with his first win in five years (Tour Championship) and his first major title in 11 years (The Masters). Last year, he signed an exclusive multi-year global content partnership with Discovery’s GolfTV. Head-to-head matches are part of the deal, and most will take place outside the U.S.

The 100 highest-paid athletes earned a combined $4 billion over the past 12 months, up 5% over the previous year. The increase jumps to 16% if you strip out the one-time stimulus of the 2017 Mayweather-McGregor fight. Endorsements fueled much of the gains, with sponsor-driven income at $987 million, up 12% from the previous year.

Overall, athletes from 10 sports and 25 countries made the top 100. Basketball (35 athletes) is the most dominant sport, and Americans (62) are the most dominant nationality.

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Tennis ace Serena Williams ranked 63rd with $29.2 million, including $25 million off the court. She is the only woman to crack the top 100 for the second time in three years. 

No female athletes qualified last year, when Williams was just returning to tennis after a 12-month layoff for her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Olympia. Williams is lining up her next act with a new clothing line and a venture capital fundfocused on investing in female and minority founders.

Our earnings include prize money, salaries and bonuses earned between June 1, 2018, and June 1, 2019. Endorsement incomes are an estimate of sponsorships, appearance fees and licensing incomes for the same 12-month period (click here for a more detailed methodology and the numbers behind the top 100).

-Kurt Badenhausen; Forbes Staff

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