Soccer has long been the planet’s most popular sport by some margin. That’s reflected in the enormous social media followings that its star players have amassed in recent years. In fact, so vast is the sport’s appeal that soccer players now don’t just rank among the most-followed athletes in the world; today, they’re also among the most popular celebrities of any kind, with some raking in more cash online than even the likes of Beyoncé, Dua Lipa, and Kevin Hart. Here we rank these stars by Instagram followers — but will it be one of eternal rivals Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo who emerges victorious?
20. Thiago Silva
Silva’s an elegant but tough center-back who grew up in poverty in Brazil on the edge of one of Rio’s notorious favela districts. Unsuccessful spells in Europe during his early 20s in Portugal and Russia were cut short by a near-death experience with tuberculosis. After considering retirement, he revived his career with hometown club Fluminense. His fine displays there earned him a move to Italian giants A.C. Milan, where he won the Serie A championship. He was then bought by Paris Saint-Germain, newly enriched by Qatari billions, for some $54 million (€42 million). It was a deal that made him the most expensive defender of all time.
Instagram followers: 20 million
Silva certainly isn’t afraid to use his Instagram feed to express some pointed opinions. For example, this season he’s already noted his affection for his outgoing manager Thomas Tuchel, who was controversially dismissed by Chelsea in September 2022. And following referee Anthony Taylor’s unpopular performance during Chelsea’s early-season clash with London rivals Spurs, Silva also showed his support for a post that simply stated, “He cannot be a referee any longer.” Silva will captain Brazil again in the Qatar World Cup in late 2022 — a tournament that his side are the favorites to win.
19. Mesut Özil
Undoubtedly a joy to behold at his wonderful best, this son of Turkish immigrants began his career in his native Germany before stepping up to the big time with a move to Real Madrid. There, Özil was beloved by the fans but seemingly not by the club’s management. The play-maker then joined Arsenal in 2013, where he initially became the star of the team. Nevertheless, he’d developed into a borderline hate-figure among fans by the time that he left the club eight years later.
Instagram followers: 24 million
Özil’s close association with the divisive Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been controversial. Indeed, the politician was actually the best man at the soccer star’s 2019 wedding. The furore began when Özil was photographed alongside Erdoğan in 2018 in a photo op that attracted a lot of media comment. Özil then received much of the blame for Germany’s disastrous showing in the World Cup later that year, which led to him retiring from the national team while accusing his critics of hypocrisy and racism. He’s been playing in Turkey since January 2021, first for Fenerbahçe and then for İstanbul Başakşehir — a club with very strong links to Erdoğan.
18. Philippe Coutinho
After a star-making stint at Liverpool from 2013 to 2018, attacking midfielder Coutinho pushed very hard to secure his $150 million (€120 million) transfer to Barcelona, souring his reputation among Liverpool’s fan base in the process. It would turn out to be a disastrous move for the Brazilian. Liverpool won the Champions League shortly afterwards, while Coutinho’s career has been in decline ever since. Initially touted as a replacement in midfield for the legendary Andrés Iniesta, Barca bought other players to fill that position six months later, and he was quickly moved upfield, where his shoot-on-sight tendencies didn’t tend to go down well with the team’s undisputed star, Leo Messi.
Instagram followers: 25 million
Coutinho’s seemingly antagonistic responses to the Barcelona crowd didn’t help matters. What’s more, his arrival is now seen as being part of one of the most disastrous transfer windows in European soccer history. Former-club president Josep Maria Bartomeu is disliked by Barca fans for a number of reasons, but the Coutinho transfer is likely the stick that they use to beat him with most often. Now at Aston Villa, Coutinho is seen at best as being on the fringes of the Brazilian World Cup squad.
17. Antoine Griezmann
Born and raised in eastern France, Griezmann has remarkably still never played a single professional club game for a French team. While still in his mid-teens, the forward moved to northern Spain to sign for Real Sociedad, where he went on to become a crucial part of a strong team that also included current Los Angeles F.C. star Carlos Vela. A move to Atlético Madrid in 2014 then saw him truly step onto the world stage. He departed for Barcelona five years later in acrimonious circumstances. The sale was worth $135 million (€120 million) and is still the joint-fourth highest fee ever paid for a player.
Instagram followers: 37 million
Strangely for a player of his profile and talent, Griezmann has won very few major club honors, with his two spells at Atleti both beginning immediately after the club had won La Liga. He also lost the 2016 Champions League with the same club to eternal rivals Real Madrid. But he played a central role in France’s 2018 World Cup triumph, being the tournament’s joint-second-highest scorer and contributing a goal and a man-of-the-match performance in the final as France defeated Croatia 4-2. And Griezmann is expected to star again when France seek to defend their title late in 2022.
16. Dani Alves
Both Brazil and Barcelona have a long and storied tradition of “attacking” defenders but few players from either side can rival the great Dani Alves. And even fewer have managed to regularly orchestrate their teams’ forward play from such a deep position. Alves was part of an extraordinary assembly line of talent brought in by legendary sporting director Monchi during his first term at Sevilla, when he signed — and later sold at great profit — the likes of Alves, Sergio Ramos, and Ivan Rakitić, among many others.
Instagram followers: 37 million
Alves has won the most major trophies of any player in the history of the game — 43, to be precise — though his former teammate Leo Messi isn’t far behind and is four years younger. Their eight glory-filled years together at Barcelona included six La Liga titles and three Champions League wins. Alves followed this up with spells at Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain where, inevitably, he again picked up major honors. He’s currently at UNAM in Mexico and, despite now being 39, he’s considered a near certainty for the Brazil squad at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
15. Andrés Iniesta
Iniesta ranks among the most universally liked and respected players in the history of the game. His reputation rests mainly on three things. Firstly, he is seen as being modest and polite despite having achieved extraordinary wealth and success. Secondly, he was a core member of a Barcelona team that produced some of the most beautiful play that the game has ever seen. And finally, he scored the decisive goal for Spain in the 2010 FIFA World Cup final to defeat the Netherlands.
Instagram followers: 40 million
Iniesta then put in another man-of-the-match display as Spain again emerged triumphant in the UEFA Euro 2012 final, with a victory over Italy. He was also given the award for the tournament’s best player. By the time he retired from the national team in 2018 his 131 appearances were the fourth-highest in history. These days, as you’d expect, Iniesta avoids controversy on Instagram. Instead, his posts are a wholesome blend of family, friends, and, of course, his day job at Japanese side Vissel Kobe, where he continues to play at the age of 38.
14. Gareth Bale
It beggars belief that a player who contributed to winning five UEFA Champions League titles for a club could wind up becoming a figure of derision and even hatred. That’s made even more remarkable by the fact that he scored three times in those finals — including possibly the greatest goal ever scored in a UCL final: an extraordinary volley against Liverpool in 2018. But such is the lot of a Real Madrid star, as Bale discovered at the end of his nine-year spell at the club.
Instagram followers: 48 million
Barring injury, Bale will captain Wales in its first World Cup Finals for over half a century in late 2022. After his goal secured qualification for Wales in a play-off win over Ukraine, Bale memorably described this achievement as being “what dreams are made of.” The 33-year-old joined Los Angeles F.C. in the summer of 2022, though he’s yet to make a big impression and still hasn’t completed a full game in the MLS.
13. Paulo Dybala
Argentine forward Dybala came to prominence in Italy at Palermo before earning a move to Serie A giants Juventus in 2015. He won three consecutive league-and-cup doubles there before enjoying an extraordinary 2019-20 season that saw him named as Serie A’s MVP. That was to be the peak of his time at Juve, though, with injuries and new signings leading to the club declining to renew Dybala’s contract when it expired in 2022.
Instagram followers: 49 million
Dybala seemed to get back to his wonderful best after joining Jose Mourinho’s Roma in the summer of 2022, and he was expected to be part of a strong Argentine squad, who are seen as serious contenders to win the World Cup in Qatar. But he suffered an injury to his leg in early October and is now following recovery techniques used by Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and Rafael Nadal in his race against time to be fit for the start of the tournament.
12. James Rodríguez
This Colombian attacking midfielder had spells in Argentina, Portugal and Monaco before scoring arguably the best goal of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. That earned him a high-profile $105 million (€63 million) move to Real Madrid. After a fine start in the Spanish capital, though, his fortunes declined, and he only managed 29 goals during his six years there. A two-season spell on loan at Bayern Munich in Germany was equally hit-and-miss.
Instagram followers: 50 million
Rodríguez rejoined his former Real Madrid manager Carlo Ancelotti at Everton in the English Premier League for a season in 2020. He then departed for Qatari side Al-Rayyan after Ancelotti headed back to Madrid. He’s been at Greek giants Olympiacos since September 2022, though Rodríguez won’t appear at the 2022 World Cup as Colombia failed to qualify in their notoriously tough group.
11. Mohamed Salah
Nowadays dubbed their “Egyptian king” by adoring Liverpool fans, Salah actually turned down his current club in favor of joining Chelsea back in 2014, after he’d become a hot property at Basel in Switzerland. After failing to cement his position at the west London club, Salah rebuilt his reputation in Italy first with Fiorentina and then with Roma. Liverpool came calling in 2017, and this time Salah couldn’t say no.
Instagram followers: 53 million
Neither party has regretted the decision. Salah and the club have gone on to enjoy five record-breaking, trophy-laden years. These have included a first league title in three decades and a sixth Champions League trophy. There have been plenty of individual honors for Salah, too, including multiple African Footballer of the Year awards and the Premier League’s Golden Boots. Egypt narrowly failed to qualify for the 2022 World Cup. But given that Salah played an eye-watering 4,737 minutes in all competitions last season, he could probably do with a rest.
10. Sergio Ramos
Ramos was a mainstay in both the most successful Spanish national team of all time and a Real Madrid side that can lay claim to being the greatest in the club’s glittering history. A buccaneering central defender who’s also a master of the game’s dark arts, he’s assembled a trophy cabinet that few can match. It includes the 2010 World Cup, Euro 2008 and 2012 trophies, five La Liga titles and four Champions League winner’s medals.
Instagram followers: 54 million
Remarkably for a central defender, Ramos also ranks among Spain’s top-ten goal-scorers of all time. But the records that tend to lodge in people’s heads relate to Ramos’ disciplinary issues. He still holds the Spanish league record for red cards and is the 21st-century’s most-booked soccer player. Ramos hasn’t changed much since leaving Spain for France in 2021, either — he managed to pick up two yellow cards in the space of less than a minute for his new club Paris Saint-Germain early in October 2022.
9. Zlatan Ibrahimović
Though a Champions League triumph has famously eluded him, Ibrahimović still achieved the remarkable feat of winning a league title every year from 2003 to 2011 — and at four different sides in three different countries, no less. Those clubs were Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, and Barcelona. It’s perhaps no less extraordinary that Ibrahimović made a significant contribution to the league title win by Inter’s city rivals AC Milan more than a decade later in 2022 at the age of 40.
Instagram followers: 56 million
As befits his larger-than-life persona, Ibrahimović has a very bold presence on Instagram. A clip of him working out posted early in 2022 racked up well over 10 million views within a day of being put up. And at the beginning of that October, he revealed that he’d gifted himself not one but two Ferraris to celebrate his 41st birthday. He did this despite already owning a Porsche 918 Spyder, a Maserati GranTurismo and a Lamborghini Urus. The caption he chose? “Happy Birthday to Zlatan.”
8. Paul Pogba
Pogba was on Manchester United’s books as a youth player but left on a free transfer to join Juventus in 2012 while still in his teens. He quickly went on to become a star as a key part of a Juve team that won four Italian titles in a row. United seemed so obsessed with the “one that got away” that they paid what at the time was a world record fee of $115 million (€105 million) to bring Pogba back in 2016. Despite the immense hype that accompanied it, his return was a disappointment, however — though he was integral to France’s triumph at the World Cup in 2018.
Instagram followers: 56 million
Though Pogba has been out injured since re-signing for Juventus — it’s thought he’ll be back in time for the World Cup — he’s still been creating plenty of headlines off the pitch. First, there was an ill-advised Amazon Prime documentary about his awful final season at United titled, ahem, The Pogmentary. Then, in September 2022 his brother Mathias was arrested over alleged attempts to extort $14 million (€13 million) from him. Mathias responded by posting pre-recorded videos online in which he claimed that Pogba had been paying a witch doctor as much as $215,000 (€200,000) a month for years to influence both his teammates and his opponents.
Marcelo left his native Brazil in 2007 to join Real Madrid, though he wouldn’t become one of Los Blancos’ stars until 2011. While ostensibly a left-back, it often felt as if he was a defender in name alone, so relentless and eye-catching were his offensive contributions. Not that this did him or his team any harm, as Marcelo’s six La Liga titles, five Champions League winner’s medals and four FIFA Club World Cups attest.
Instagram followers: 59 million
Marcelo’s 15-year association with Madrid ended during the summer of 2022, when he signed with Greek giants Olympiacos. Perhaps inevitably, the move immediately made him the resident of Greece with the most Instagram followers in history. Yet though he was selected as part of the Team of the Tournament at both the 2014 and 2018 World Cups, Marcelo will almost certainly not be selected for the Brazil squad for the World Cup at the end of 2022, having not appeared for the national team since 2018.
Without doubt one of the most joyful players to ever grace a soccer pitch — something reflected in his famous toothy grin — Ronaldinho is adored by both fans and fellow players alike. But while no less an authority than Leo Messi credits Ronaldinho with reviving Barcelona’s fortunes in the mid-2000s, the Brazilian’s off-field antics haven’t always made him a favorite of his coaches. Upon taking over the Barcelona first team in 2008, Pep Guardiola notoriously demanded that Ronaldinho be sold. It was a move that Ronaldinho’s career never really recovered from.
Instagram followers: 68 million
Ronaldinho led an infamously reckless life throughout his playing career, and when he went back to Brazil to play for Flamengo in 2011, a “nightclub clause” was included in his contract. Now, you might well expect that Brazil’s biggest team just wanted to ensure that their new player behaved himself. But no, the clause actually entitled Ronaldinho to go out clubbing at least twice a week. This lifestyle attracted some notoriety, which wasn’t helped by a 2020 arrest for trying to enter Paraguay with a fake passport — despite the fact that Brazilian nationals don’t even need a passport to visit the country.
5. Kylian Mbappe
That Mbappe is a talent who’s destined to be one of the world’s finest players has been in little doubt since his time at Monaco between 2015 and 2017. And his star hasn’t dimmed at all since signing for Paris Saint-Germain for $165 million (€145 million) — potentially rising to $205 million (€180 million), still the second-highest fee in the history of the sport — and winning the World Cup with France shortly afterwards.
Instagram followers: 73 million
But the stark fact is that despite his on-field brilliance, Mbappe’s life seems to become more like a soap opera with every passing month. Even with a new $83 million per year deal signed at PSG during the summer of 2022, his will-they-won’t-they flirtation with Real Madrid made headlines in the following months. And just 11 games into the Ligue 1 season, we’ve already seen Mbappe criticizing his manager online, clashing with fellow PSG star Neymar, and — according to rumor — leaking stories to the media that he desperately wants to leave the club in January 2023.
4. David Beckham
While debate will perhaps always rage about exactly how talented a player Beckham was, especially in comparison to some of his peers, he was clearly ahead of the field in terms of controlling and financially profiting from his public image. And in that sense at least, he’s been a trailblazer for today’s generation of image-aware soccer stars. What’s more, his profile remains high in his current role as president and co-owner of MLS club Inter Miami.
Instagram followers: 76 million
Of course, it really helps if your wife is a globally famous pop star who then goes on to become a globally famous fashion designer, which of course describes Beckham’s partner, Victoria. Their children — notably Brooklyn and Romeo — are now entering adulthood and are also displaying a fondness for the limelight. Given that, we suspect that the Beckhams’ social media presence won’t be declining anytime soon.
Though Neymar’s only been involved in two transfers during his 13-year career, both have had consequences out of proportion even with the Brazilian’s extravagant talents. The deal that saw him move from his homeland to Barcelona resulted in legal cases lasting years and the club and an executive facing charges. Then, in 2017 Paris Saint-Germain paid Neymar’s release clause of $260 million (€222 million). It’s still the world-record transfer fee, and the deal made lasting waves for market inflation and on financial fair play.
Instagram followers: 180 million
It should also be pointed out that despite Neymar’s reputation for petulance and play-acting, Luis Enrique, the current head coach of the Spanish national side and a man who’s never suffered fools gladly, adored Neymar when he was in charge at Barcelona. Yet with Neymar set to turn 31 in February 2023, the 2022 World Cup — which will be his third — looks to almost certainly be his last shot at winning soccer’s greatest honor. Nevertheless, having Neymar on side is certainly part of the reason that Brazil are going into the tournament as favorites to win the trophy.
2. Lionel Messi
Messi’s increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Barcelona saw him leave the club for France’s Paris Saint-Germain in 2021, though it’s a relationship that media reports continue to insist he’s keen to rekindle. Put simply, the Spanish club had become such a mess financially that it could no longer afford to keep its favorite adopted son. Such a departure had previously been unthinkable during Messi’s 17-year stay in Barcelona, for much of which he’d been the undisputed star of what was probably the finest side the game’s ever seen.
Instagram followers: 369 million
Messi’s debut season at PSG was a disappointing one that saw him score only six league goals. That put him outside of the top five in contention for the Ballon d'Or — the award for Europe’s best player — for the first time since 2007. His form improved markedly the following season, which bodes well for the Argentine national team that he’ll captain at the 2022 World Cup. Argentina appear to have found an unusual and much-needed degree of stability under head coach Lionel Scaloni and, after triumphing at the 2021 Copa América, they go into the tournament as third-favorites, behind France and arch-rivals Brazil.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronaldo’s social media profile doesn’t seem to have been damaged either by his recent legal issues or his petulant reactions to the bit-part role that he’s been given this season at Manchester United under new manager Erik ten Hag. On the contrary, ESPN reported in September 2022 that a study by soccer analysts Nielsen ahead of the 2022 World Cup had concluded that Ronaldo was currently “the most powerful player in the world — at least in terms of his social media influence.”
Instagram followers: 491 million
In fact, despite his on-field troubles, Ronaldo’s Instagram following has actually risen by close to 50 percent since he headed back to United in 2021. And the $3.6 million that the Nielsen study estimates he earns per Instagram post doesn’t just put Ronaldo ahead of other soccer stars. Analysis by online lending firm NetCredit calculated that the Portuguese star earns $85 million annually from Instagram — a figure that means he’s the highest-earning Instagram celebrity alive.