The Power Game: Did J.G. Ballard predict the World’s Greatest Soccer Star?

October 29, 2019

This article was originally published in Populous Magazine, our biannual publication featuring news and trends from the worlds of sport, entertainment, and major public events. Find out more, and sign up to receive a free copy, here.

Who is the most important player in world soccer? Using expert statistics and analysis, Joe Boyle measures the fame, influence, value and skill of the top three players on the planet.

It’s a safe bet that none of soccer’s three modern greats – Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar – has read the dystopian fiction of British novelist J.G. Ballard. They really ought to, though.

Ballard’s insight into the potent combination of mass media and new technology helps explain how these supermen exert such a hold on the popular imagination. “In the media landscape, it’s almost impossible to separate fact from fiction,” Ballard said in a prescient 1987 interview that foresaw the power of the Internet. Does his maxim apply here? Can we talk about these players’ greatness as an objective fact or is it a more complex, fictional construction?

Even the simplest facts generate complex answers. Messi has more titles but Ronaldo more Champions League wins and a European Championship to his belt. Whose record is better? Can you gauge how successful Barcelona FC would have been without Messi, or Messi without Barça? Would Neymar be even more valuable had he not headed for the torpor of France’s Ligue 1?

Attempts have been made to provide an objective measure of their sporting ability. Business Insider’s dominance score is based on a basket of metrics, including passes made and completed, goals created and scored etc. Messi and Neymar were ranked one and two at the last calculation in late 2018. Ronaldo had slipped to sixth. His stats are starting to suffer: fewer key passes per game, a lower goal ratio, fewer mazy runs with the ball.

Ronaldo’s move to Italian club Juventus FC looked like an admission of waning power. Club profile really matters and playing in Spain confers worth. Barça and Real Madrid CF are the world’s best supported teams. It’s why Neymar agitated all summer for a return to Barça from Paris Saint-Germain FC. Ronaldo’s move to Italy felt retrograde, despite Juve’s illustrious history.

Of course, all careers decline. Messi and Ronaldo are seeing a drop in their values. Ronaldo’s calculated transfer values are now as low as 20th and 25th respectively. Messi, too, has slipped, while Neymar’s value trajectory is upwards, reflecting his age (27) and the likelihood that he is only just about to reach the peak of his career.

Is Ronaldo worried? It’s doubtful. Transfer fees needn’t equate to earning power. The €222m ($246m) fee paid for Neymar by Paris Saint- Germain is the most expensive yet. However, his overall earnings lag behind Messi’s and Ronaldo’s, according to business website

Look deeper for the real story. Messi’s salary makes up 72 per cent of his overall $127m earnings; Neymar’s ratio is a similar 71 per cent. Meanwhile, Ronaldo’s $65m salary at Juve (paltry, eh?) accounts for just 60 per cent of his earnings in the past year. The Portuguese is paid considerably less by his club than the others, and is more dependent on endorsements. Dependent, maybe, but more successful in earning them. His commercial clout outstrips that of his rivals.

It is brilliant planning. If playing value is transitory, then maximise your value off the pitch, especially in the online world. A recent KPMG report on Ronaldo’s move to Juve stated: “Monetising the inherent value in social media is crucial for clubs in order to stay competitive and to enhance their profitability.”

Juve bought not just a player but a social media account. Hookit calculated that his online reach is so vast that each of his sponsored posts last year (carefully crafted virtual fictions)
generated $1.8m for his grateful brands. No wonder Nike offered him a $1bn lifetime deal in 2016. It’s said they made their money back in little over two years.

This marketability sets Ronaldo apart. He speaks English, giving him an air of cosmopolitanism the others lack. He moves share prices: Juve’s doubled following his signing.
He shifts national economies: Portuguese newspaper Diário de Notícias calculated that this summer’s Nations League would be worth €150m to the Portuguese economy, so long as Ronaldo played. He also looks more comfortable, certainly than Messi, with his top off.

“We’ll all be simultaneously actor, director and screenwriter in our own soap opera,” Ballard predicted in 1987. “People will start screening themselves. They will become their
own TV programmes.” Ballard saw Ronaldo coming. Messi may be the most skilled and Neymar the most valuable, but Ronaldo is the most watched. And surely that’s what matters most.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *