The world's most famous footballers -- soccer stars, in American parlance -- now make as much money as some of the biggest names in U.S. pro sports, buoyed by rising celebrity and global product endorsements. Earnings (salary plus endorsements) for the ten best-paid soccer players rose 20% last year.
Topping the list is Ronaldinho, two-time World Player of the Year, who pocketed $30 million, on par with the top earners in U.S. team sports: basketball's Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, and Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees. Ronaldinho -- as with the singer Madonna, the surname is all but unknown to fans (his full name is Ronaldo de Assis Moreira) -- earned $11 million in salary and the rest in endorsements from the likes of Nike, EA Sports, Cadbury and Pepsi. Fittingly, the 27-year-old Brazilian starred in a Nike ad -- "Ronaldinho: Touch of Gold."
David Beckham ($29 million), who joins the Los Angeles Galaxy of the struggling Major League Soccer in the U.S. after his contract to play for Real Madrid ends in June, misses the top spot for the first time since our rankings began in 2004. His five-year MLS deal, which gives him a cut of ticket sales and a 45% share of the take from sales of all Galaxy team jerseys, could be worth $250 million.
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The U.S. soccer league may lure more overseas stars if Beckham sparks new revenue growth. One prospect is the perpetrator of one of the most famous head-butts in history: former Real Madrid midfielder Zinedine Zidane ($16 million), who was tossed from last year's World Cup final for knocking his skull into the chest of an opponent. Now retired, Zidane is among the few who can rival Beckham's charisma.
The pup star of this soccer roster is England's 21-year-old World Cup star, Wayne Rooney ($17 million), who makes our list for the first time. Twice named the Young Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers' Association, Rooney is cashing in on his well-earned reputation as a hothead. In November he re-upped with Manchester United until 2012, at up to $11 million a year in salary, and can potentially match that in endorsements from the likes of Nike, Coca-Cola and EA Sports.