Outrageous Saudi contracts and a major Major League Soccer (MLS) signing shook the football universe this year. But a roster of big names—including Ronaldo, Messi, and Neymar — remains at the top of the financial table.
In order to convince Neymar to leave the French Ligue 1 and join the Saudi Pro League, his new club, Al Hilal, had to pay a lot of money, since he is considered the king of football. The 31-year-old Brazilian star reportedly received a staffed villa, a fleet of luxury cars, and access to a private jet, as well as bonuses for team wins and social media posts and permission to live with his girlfriend in the Kingdom, which is restricted by Islamic law. That’s all on top of the estimated 80 million dollars in on-field compensation (112 million dollars in total earnings) that Neymar will receive for playing this season.
Al Hilal can afford it. The club is one of four that Saudi Arabia’s 700 billion dollar (in assets) Public Investment Fund took control of in June and is a key part of the Kingdom’s grand sporting ambitions. Just as they did with LIV Golf, the Saudis are eager to shake up the global football landscape and create a new destination for top talent, and they are not shy about spending astronomical amounts of money to attract football’s biggest stars.
According to Deloitte, Saudi Pro League clubs spent just a little bit less than 1 billion dollars to buy 94 players from abroad during the 2023 summer transfer window. That doesn’t even take into account the staggering sums offered to players who refused to leave their European clubs, including a 1.1 billion dollar package reportedly offered to pry Kylian Mbappe from Paris-Saint Germain for one year, or the alleged 1.6 billion dollar three-year deal offered to Lionel Messi before he decided to play for Miami South Beach.
In total, the eleven highest-paid football players in the world are projected to earn 995 million dollars before taxes and agent fees this season, with five of them set to break the nine-figure mark. That’s a staggering 53% increase over last year’s list, which ranked ten players at a record 652 million dollars combined. Saudi Pro League players took four spots this year and account for more than half of the total in 2023, primarily due because of their lucrative on-field deals.
Cristiano Ronaldo, who topped the list of the highest-paid footballers in 2021, takes the first place with an expected total earnings of 260 million dollars. His decision to move to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr earlier this year, following a messy split with Manchester United, effectively sparked the exodus to the Kingdom. Ronaldo is expected to earn 200 million dollars on the field, but his contract is believed to include financial incentives from commercial deals negotiated by the club. And while Al Nassr probably bought out some of his image rights, Ronaldo still has a lucrative endorsement portfolio (including Nike and Jacob & Co), earning around 60 million dollars annually.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo – 260 million dollars
Ronaldo’s new employers in Saudi Arabia have not been shy about taking advantage of the player’s star status. Namely, Cristiano Ronaldo appeared in a video by Al Nassra Club in traditional Saudi clothing to promote Saudi National Day, as well as a promo video for the boxing match between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou in Riyadh. Ronaldo also has his own sponsorship deals, with ads for Clear, Herbalife, and Binance, among others, appearing on his Instagram in the last two months.
2. Lionel Messi – 135 million dollars
The so-called Messi effect has not only increased the demand for tickets, and led to their prices skyrocketing – for Inter Miami matches, but also for every other club in the league. In the game against Miami, in which the greatest player of all time did not even play, the Chicago Fire club earned between 7 and 10 million dollars, more than in all the other games they played at home that season combined. Messi’s arrival in the United States (U.S.) is also accompanied by the recently released Apple TV documentary, ”Messi Meets America”.
3. Neymar Jr. – 112 million dollars
October was a big month for Neymar – he scored his first goal for Al Hilal and welcomed his second child. Also, Neymar is very active off the field: his list of sponsors includes Puma, Konami, and Red Bull. Recently, the Brazilian footballer announced a partnership with the Portuguese horse farm Team Campline, Forbes writes.