Lionel Messi vs Cristiano Ronaldo – Who is the GOAT (short for greatest of all time) when it comes to football?
That debate will never be settled definitively, but Messi’s supporters were given a huge boost last month when he won the World Cup and was awarded the Ballon d’Or as the tournament’s best player. Ronaldo’s chances of ever winning the World Cup take a hit after Portugal’s quarter-final exit. By the next tournament, in the summer of 2026, he will be 41 years old.
But when it comes to commercial traction and global brand positioning, Ronaldo, the world’s most followed man on Instagram, has long had the upper hand. The extroverted Portuguese striker, with his model looks and chiseled physique, has always had the edge over the introverted Argentinian Messi, who with his short stature and shaggy beard doesn’t always look like an elite athlete.
But Messi’s crowning glory in Qatar last month could see the sands shift in favor of the 35-year-old, who relies heavily on his father Jorge and older brother Rodrigo to handle his commercial arrangements. Many other top players employ more conventional agents and agencies, but Messi chooses to keep his circle small, with people he can truly trust.
Messi has been busy benefiting from a number of commercial deals, while Ronaldo has just made a highly lucrative – if not particularly competitive – move to Al Nassr in the little-watched Saudi league after forcing a mid-season exit from the club. Manchester United.
The Athletic. spoke to experts and analyzed social media data to assess how Brand Messi has grown like never before since that thrilling Sunday night at Doha’s Lusail Stadium a week before Christmas.
“What Messi has done that separates him from Ronaldo is that he won the World Cup and was a star performer in what most people would agree is the best World Cup final ever,” says sports marketing expert Tim Crow. “It gives you immortality.
“Most people would agree that Messi has surpassed Ronaldo.
Others may disagree in football terms, but in commercial matters, Ronaldo is still a very good example.
“Ronaldo has established himself well in key territories,” says Adrian Wright, director of the Sporting Group and former marketing director of English team West Bromwich Albion, citing Ronaldo’s club career in Portugal, England, Spain, Italy, England and now Saudi Arabia. Arabia. This means that it is well known not only in the countries where their league games are televised.
“Ronaldo has attracted the Asian market and has a large following from the subcontinent,” says Wright.
While Messi’s role at one of Barcelona’s all-time greats has made him a global superstar (Spain’s La Liga is hugely popular around the world), he hasn’t had the same TV presence as Ronaldo over the past two seasons – especially since the summer. in 2021 will move to play for Paris Saint-Germain in France as the Ligue 1 top flight doesn’t get as much global exposure as the Premier League.
One aspect that really makes Ronaldo seem like the GOAT is the size of his online audience. He is the most followed not only a football player, but also an athlete a person in the world.
Instagram is the most important platform for professional footballers, as Messi doesn’t even have a personal Twitter account.
Ronaldo has 529 million Instagram followers, while Messi has 415 million. Next in line are US reality star Kylie Jenner, actress and singer Selena Gomez and wrestler-turned-actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
An analysis by SocialBlade shows that Messi has more Instagram followers than Ronaldo over the four weeks of the World Cup, but perhaps not by as much as one might imagine when one won the tournament and the other was benched as his country lost. in the eighth – he earned 30 million, Ronaldo – 20 million.
Crow says such raw numbers aren’t always the most useful indicator of a player’s commercial appeal.
“Anyone who advises brands on these deals knows that this is one part of the equation,” he says. “Brands take these numbers with a huge pinch of salt because many of these numbers are bots (inauthentic accounts).
Digging into the data reveals a more nuanced picture than a simple Ronaldo win.
First, Messi posts on Instagram significantly less often than Ronaldo, which means he gets more followers per post.
The Argentina captain also has a much higher “engagement rate” (the number of likes or comments on recent posts) than his Portugal counterparts, although this may be skewed by what recently became the most-liked post on Instagram.
Football ability is not all that is needed to create a global brand, as companies and consumers want to have an idea of the player in question as a person and a personality.
“(Messi) conquered the Spanish-speaking world,” says Crow. “But in the English-speaking world, I think most people would say they don’t really know him as a person, not as a footballer.
It is somewhat unusual for a truly global celebrity that Messi does not speak English. Ronaldo does, helped by more than seven years at Manchester United in two games more than ten years apart, and he is fluent in the lingua franca of the commercial world.
Messi was already one of the most recognizable faces in world sport, but his profile has been boosted by billions of people watching him lift the World Cup last month in what will be his fifth and final attempt to do so as he turns 35 in the summer . and now he promotes businesses from video games to cryptocurrency exchanges.
Both players were involved in controversial deals.
Messi is a tourism ambassador for Saudi Arabia, an odd position as the Gulf state competes with Argentina for the 2030 World Cup. hosting the World Cup, and both have heavily endorsed cryptocurrency products such as Fan Tokens, which have fallen in value since launch. .
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Whatever the rights and wrongs of these deals, it’s clear that both are reaching the heights of their commercial powers long after they were football’s most powerful forces.
Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economics at SKEMA, a business school based in France. He uses the term “monetization” to describe how Messi and Ronaldo constantly promote new products as their careers reach their end.
“For mere mortals like us, you’re looking at a future where your wages will increase and grow (over your working life). But for any footballer, the salary will not increase, it will decrease,” he says, claiming that both players are aiming for “the last payday”.
“Ronaldo was collecting income long before Messi came along,” says Chadwick, describing the lifestyle and image the Portuguese has built.
When Ronaldo’s record-breaking move from United to Real Madrid was confirmed in the summer of 2009, he partied in Los Angeles with actress and socialite Paris Hilton, who at the time was one of the most famous people on the planet. Rumors have swirled ever since that the whole thing was handled for marketing purposes.
Messi has always had the image of a more reserved family man, often posting pictures with his wife Antonela Roccuzzo, who hails from his hometown of Rosario, where life moves more slowly than a three-hour drive from the capital. Buenos Aires and their three sons Thiago, Mateo and Ciro.
“Messi has had a long, slow upward trajectory,” says Chadwick, “but Ronaldo has peaked and realized you can’t stay young and sexy forever and you realize the nature of your brand has to change.”
Chadwick says that in recent years, Ronaldo has tried to cultivate a more family man image, posting about his partner Georgina Rodriguez and children, rather than the hypermasculine marauder who always took off his shirt after a big goal to reveal his rippling, gym-honed physique.
He cites Ronaldo’s United and Madrid predecessor David Beckham as an example of a football star who has aged gracefully in terms of his commercial brand positioning, if not in the eyes of some for his curious role as Qatar’s well-paid global ambassador. Cup, keeping quiet about the many controversies surrounding the event.
“At one point (Beckham) shows up in his Armani boxer shorts. Five or 10 years later he landed an endorsement deal with (UK department store chain) Marks & Spencer,” Chadwick says, highlighting the shift from a luxury “sexy” brand to one associated with a rather unglamorous middle-class lifestyle.
“Another comparison is (tennis great) Roger Federer. He was the face of Nike for a long time, but then left and went to Uniqlo.
Chadwick describes it as a “shrewd move” for Federer to leave Nike just as his position as the world’s best player was threatened and join the more casual clothing brand as he showed off a second set of twins with wife Mirka. .
It remains to be seen how Messi and Ronaldo fare over the next 10 years, during which they will undoubtedly remain global superstars post-retirement, but not to the same degree, and without a huge club salary.
Although his tax affairs in Spain have put him under the microscope, Messi has seen little controversy compared to Ronaldo.
But Messi always wanted to earn more and more money, and his ever-increasing wages at Barcelona played a role in the acrimonious breakup that saw him join Paris Saint-Germain.
According to the marketing agency Hopper, from December 18 he earned about 1.8 million during the World Cup final. USD (£1.5 million) for six different sponsored Instagram posts, for a total of $10.6 million. These included commercials for the video game Call Of Duty, Budweiser beer and the cryptocurrency exchange Bitget.
While all this is very lucrative, it pales in comparison to Ronaldo’s £177 million. pounds sterling ($214 million) in annual wages at Al Nassr, far more than Messi is paid by PSG.
Of course, it’s still possible that Messi, more than two years younger than Ronaldo, will make one final big-money move, likely following in his long-time rival’s footsteps to the Gulf or, as Beckham did, to Major League Soccer. in the United States of America.
One question that comes to mind on this topic is: What is the point of all this?
When someone has already amassed more wealth than most people can even imagine, why bother grafting to make more money that you’ll never be able to spend?
But even if someone is very rich, it is difficult to turn down the opportunity to earn millions of dollars by agreeing to send a simple post on social networks. Furthermore, figures such as Messi and Ronaldo are surrounded by huge squads, all of whom are financially invested to squeeze every last drop of potential revenue.
But marketing expert Crow says the opportunities to amass a commercial fortune associated with sporting immortality also come with risks.
“(Messi) will have no shortage of people who want him to lend them his brand,” he says. “People felt uncomfortable when Pele lent his brand to (sandwich chain) Subway.”
Pele was also mocked for promoting erectile dysfunction drugs (although he later said he was proud to help break the “taboo” surrounding the treatment). He also sued Samsung, claiming the electronics company misused his image, though it’s unclear if the case was settled.
Whatever Messi and Ronaldo and their ilk plan for the future, one thing for these two superstars who have finished their illustrious careers is one thing: when it comes to making money, there’s no time like the present.
(Top photo: Gustavo Pagano/Getty Images)