WHO? Not Ronaldo or Messi – The World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players 2023

In order to lure Neymar away from France’s Ligue 1 to the Saudi Pro League and join Al Hilal, the new Saudi Arabian club had to offer an extravagant package.

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The 31-year-old Brazilian star is said to have received a lavish mansion complete with staff, a fleet of luxury cars, access to a private jet, and bonuses for team victories and social media posts.

Moreover, he was granted permission to live with his girlfriend, despite Islamic law restrictions.

These extraordinary perks come in addition to an estimated $80 million in on-field earnings (a total of $112 million in earnings) that Neymar is expected to receive for the current season.

Fortunately for Al Hilal, they have the financial capacity to meet these demands. The club is one of four that the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, boasting assets worth $700 billion, assumed control of in June.

It plays a vital role in Saudi Arabia’s ambitious endeavors in the sporting world, akin to what the Saudis have done with LIV Golf. Their intentions are clear: they aim to revolutionize global soccer and establish a new magnet for top-tier talent.

To achieve this, they are unapologetically willing to invest astronomical sums in securing a constellation of star players.

During the 2023 summer transfer window, Saudi Pro League clubs collectively spent almost $1 billion to acquire 94 overseas players, as reported by Deloitte.

This astonishing figure doesn’t even include the jaw-dropping offers extended to players who opted to stay with their European clubs.

For instance, there was a reported $1.1 billion proposal made to entice Kylian Mbappé from Paris Saint-Germain for one year, as well as a rumored three-year, $1.6 billion deal offered to Lionel Messi before he chose to take his talents to South Beach.

In total, the world’s eleven highest-paid soccer players are projected to earn a staggering $995 million this season, before taxes and agents’ fees.

Notably, five of these players are set to exceed nine figures in earnings. This represents an astounding 53% increase compared to the previous year’s list, which featured ten players with a combined earnings record of $652 million.

Four spots on the list are now occupied by Saudi Pro League players, who account for more than half of the total earnings in 2023, primarily due to their lucrative on-field agreements.

Claiming the top spot this year is Cristiano Ronaldo, who also led the highest-paid soccer players list in 2021. He is expected to rake in total earnings of $260 million.

Ronaldo’s move to Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia earlier this year marked the beginning of the influx of players into the Kingdom.

His projected on-field earnings amount to $200 million, but it’s believed that his deal includes both playing wages and financial incentives from commercial agreements facilitated by the club.

Despite the club likely purchasing a portion of his image rights, Ronaldo continues to maintain a lucrative portfolio of endorsements, including partnerships with Nike and Jacob & Co, which earns him an estimated $60 million annually.

The Saudis are known for their opaqueness when it comes to their business dealings, especially when spending appears to defy conventional business logic.

Forbes consulted with over a dozen industry experts to refine these contract estimates, and there’s a strong consensus that some publicly reported soccer salaries may be inflated.

This could be a means to mitigate reputational damage associated with playing in a country that has faced accusations of “sportswashing” to divert attention from human rights issues.

In a recent interview with Fox News, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, chairman of the PIF, reaffirmed the rationale behind sportswashing: “If sportswashing is going to increase my GDP by one percent, then I will continue doing sportswashing.”

Alternatively, these sky-high salary figures could be used as bait to attract more players to compete against lesser competition in Saudi Arabia.

While some definitive contract information does surface from time to time, such as leaked documents and public filings, soccer insiders suggest that some of the reported figures are educated guesses, sometimes pieced together by intermediaries with limited involvement in the respective deals.

If the aim is to achieve self-sustaining revenues, the Saudi Pro League must develop a more viable economic model.

The Chinese Super League serves as a cautionary tale in this regard. It spent over $1 billion on player transfers during 2016 and 2017, according to Transfermarkt, to lure stars like Brazil’s Oscar, Hulk, and Argentina’s Carlos Tevez.

Yet, after nearly a decade, Xi Jinping’s ambitious soccer project has become a nightmare. China’s economic growth stalled, investor interest waned, sponsors and viewers dwindled, clubs grappled with wage bills, and many foreign players and coaches left, partly due to strict COVID-19 policies. In 2022, the league’s clubs collectively spent just under $30 million on transfers.

The Saudi Pro League has encountered its share of turmoil as well. In the past 18 months, FIFA’s Dispute Resolution Center has handled 21 cases brought by players against Saudi clubs, involving complaints ranging from unfair contract termination to non-payment of wages, as reported by The Athletic.

In every case, the players emerged victorious, and the cumulative amount paid to the affected athletes exceeded $16 million. Given growing concerns about payment viability, FIFPro, the international union representing 65,000 players, advised players against relocating to Saudi Arabia last year.

For now, Saudi Arabia can issue checks with an abundance of zeroes, thanks to its substantial financial resources.

Meanwhile, Europe’s Financial Fair Play regulations restrict clubs from spending more than they earn, meaning the major European leagues can only keep pace to a certain extent.

Many of the players who have moved to Saudi Arabia are in the twilight of their careers. To sustain interest in the league, creative solutions will be required.

Rossi Biddle, owner of sports marketing firm XtraTimeFC, points out, “Everybody’s still watching Ronaldo, everybody

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