When it comes to measuring the greatest players in the world’s most beautiful game, the focus inevitably turns to a pair of rivals with household names and exclusive claims to being the only team-sport athletes to earn $1 billion during their careers. It may be time to make room for a third.
Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo top this year’s Forbes ranking of the highest-paid soccer players once again, after Messi resolved a weeks-long contract drama to land the top spot with $126 million, nudging out Juventus’ Ronaldo, who comes in at No. 2 with $117 million. But soccer fans have a new object of fascination in Kylian Mbappe, the Paris Saint-Germain striker who lands in fourth place with $48 million.
Mbappe is the rising hot shot of both the Paris club and the French national team, having amassed 103 goals in all competitions since turning professional five years ago. At age 19, he became the youngest player to score a World Cup goal since the legendary Pelé (who did it in 1958 at age 17) while helping the French team win its second title in history. He’s ahead of the game’s two leaders when they were his age: The two-time top goal-scorer in France’s Ligue 1 already has 12 more career goals than Messi had at age 21 and 76 more than Ronaldo.
He’s also making a heck of a lot more than they were at his age, too. The kid from Bondy, a poor Parisian suburb, became the sport’s most expensive teenager when Paris Saint-Germain shelled out $215 million to his former club Monaco for his rights in 2017 and signed him to a contract that will pay him $28 million this season. Nike and luxury watchmaker Hublot both feature him prominently, and EA Sports announced him as its cover boy for FIFA21, making him one of the youngest ever to grace that brand’s cover solo.
The 21-year-old is topped on the list once again this year by teammate Neymar (No. 3, $96 million), but the dynamic is poised to shift as Mbappe is expected to get a bumper new contract in 2022 when his current contract expires.
In all, the top ten players in the world are expected to pull in $570 million in salary, bonuses and endorsements this upcoming season, barring no further pandemic pauses of the kind that led to the 30% to 70% pay cuts last spring across European leagues. The list’s combined haul is up 11% from the 2019-20 season.
1. Lionel Messi-Barcelona
Total Earnings: $126 million
Salary: $92 million | Endorsements: $34 million
It took FC Barcelona 105 years to win 64 trophies before Messi joined in 2005. In the past 16 years, he’s led the team to 34 trophy wins, a performance that has landed his name among the sport’s greats—and earned him $1 billion in pretax career earnings. This year, he dragged the soccer world through weeks of cliffhanger drama as he fought with the club about playing out the final year of his contract. He stayed, and stands to collect $92 million for doing so, but Messi Watch 2021 is in full force, with all eyes peeled for clues as to where he will turn up next.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo-Juventus
Total Earnings: $117 million
Salary: $70 million |Endorsements: $47 million
Ronaldo is the most popular athlete on the planet with 457 million social media followers. He’s also the most engaged, per Hookit, regularly displaying his 0% body fat and poster-boy good looks for his CR7 lifestyle branded wear, health and wellness sponsors like Herbalife and Clear shampoo, and his lifetime sponsor Nike. In July, he posted a video of himself narrating an encouraging letter he wrote to 10-year-old Brazilian soccer prodigy Julia Rosado and her tearful delight as she received it, along with the Swoosh’s latest Flight Ball. He is only the second man in history, after Iran’s Ali Daei, to have scored more than 100 international goals, recently passing the mark in Portugal’s UEFA Nations League match against Sweden.
3. Neymar Jr.-Paris Saint-Germain
Total Earnings: $96 million
Salary: $78 million |Endorsements: $18 million
The 28-year-old Brazilian striker, one of the most polarizing players in the game for his antics on and off the pitch, quadrupled his pay and criticism when he traded playing alongside Messi in Barcelona for suiting up with Paris Saint-Germain in August 2017. Between his record $263 million transfer fee and his average $70 million salary, PSG is spending more than $600 million to keep him in the French capital. This summer, Nike ended its relationship with Neymar, allowing him to sign with Puma. He opened Ligue 1’s 2020-21 season with a red card for taking a swipe at the back of Marseille’s Alvaro Gonzalez head, claiming it was in response to racial abuse.
4. Kylian Mbappe-Paris Saint-Germain
Total Earnings: $42 million
Salary: $28 million |Endorsements: $14 million
For the second year in a row, Mbappe was named the winner of the Ligue 1 Golden Boot, which honors the player with the most goals for the league. His club also repeated as league champion, with last season’s title declared on a points-per-match basis after play was cut short because of the coronavirus pandemic. He was forced to spend Ligue 1’s 2020-21 season opener in quarantine after he tested positive for Covid-19 but has remained asymptomatic, according to his lawyer.
5. Mohamed Salah-Liverpool
Total Earnings: $37 million
Salary: $24 million |Endorsements: $13 million
Salah has reached the 20-goal mark across all competitions in each of the last three seasons at Liverpool, helping to propel the club to its first Premier League title in 30 years in 2019-20. He has the highest win rate of any league player to have appeared in more than 100 matches. In Liverpool’s 2020-21 opening match, he scored a hat trick. In February, the 28-year-old teamed up with long-term sponsor Vodafone to become an ambassador for a UN program that brings digital learning tools to refugees in his native Egypt.
6. Paul Pogba-Manchester United
Total Earnings: $34 million
Salary: $28 million |Endorsements: $6 million
Pogba’s current deal expires next summer, although Manchester United has the option to extend it one more year. The French striker scared fans in early August by posting on social media that he had signed for Verdansk FC. It turned out to be a fictional club and a stunt by sponsor Activision to promote Call of Duty: Warzone, Season 5. The 27-year-old has also appeared with Messi and Salah in Pepsi’s “Play Never Stops” campaign.
7. Antoine Griezmann-Barcelona
Total Earnings: $33 million
Salary: $28 million |Endorsements: $5 million
Since the Frenchman’s disappointing debut at Barcelona this past season, rumors have swirled that the club is negotiating to swap him to PSG in return for Neymar, at the request of Messi. Griezmann is an avid Brooklyn Nets fan, often jetting over to the U.S. for games and frequently posting his support on social media. Nets star Kevin Durant even helped Barça unveil Griezmann’s uniform switch from No. 17 to No. 7 ahead of the 2020-21 season. In January, he launched Grizi Esports to compete in FIFA, Fortnite, CS:Go and Rainbow Six.
8. Gareth Bale-Real Madrid
Total Earnings: $29 million
Salary: $23 million |Endorsements: $6 million
Bale continues to butt heads with manager Zinedine Zidane and is the most expensive bench warmer in sports right now. He played in just two of Real Madrid’s last 11 La Liga matches and then was left off the club’s 24-man Champions League squad in early August. The Welshman is an avid golfer and has pitched TaylorMade products and events on social media.
9. Robert Lewandowski-Bayern Munich
Total Earnings: $28 million
Salary: $24 million | Endorsements: $4 million
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, France Football, the organizer of the Ballon d’Or, decided to cancel the 2020 award for the world’s best player. In doing so it is robbing Lewandowski, who was the clear favorite to win. Across all competitions, the Polish striker directly contributed to 65 goals for Bayern Munich last season—55 goals and ten assists in 47 matches. In the Champions League, he scored in every match up until the final against PSG, which his team won on a lone goal by teammate Kingsley Coman. Off the pitch, he is one of the most popular athletes on TikTok, with 2.4 million followers
10. David De Gea-Manchester United
Total Earnings: $27 million
Salary: $24 million |Endorsements: $3 million
De Gea’s $24 million salary makes him the highest-paid goalkeeper in the world. In July, he made his 400th appearance in goal in his ninth year with Man United and broke the club record for the most shutouts. He’s been married to his wife, popular Spanish singer and actress Edune, since 2010 and frequently promotes her work on his social media accounts.
To compile our list, we spoke with clubs, players’ agents, commercial sponsors and soccer experts in the U.S. and Europe. All figures are converted to U.S. dollars and include soccer salaries for the 2020-21 season, bonuses and endorsements. Transfer fees are excluded. Earnings are pretax.
-By Christina Settimi, Forbes Staff