Finding actual data on the contracts and salaries of professional soccer players is tricky because clubs are loath to reveal just how much it costs to assemble a superb team. Given that soccer is the global game of the masses, there's enough fan ire at the outrageous transfer fees lavished on players that to publicize their individual take-home earnings is almost a bridge too far. (Except when a player is outed by a tabloid for shenanigans, in which case his wages are used as a bludgeon for character assault.)
But this list isn't just about those players lucky (thanks to their hardworking, percentage-taking agents) enough to exploit the clubs that crave them. After all, this is a two-way street. Clubs exploit the added publicity and merchandise sales -- David Beckham's move to the L.A. Galaxy allowed the MLS club to sell some 250,000 replica shirts prior to his first game, while he's led the league in shirt sales for five of the past six years. Furthermore, extravagant signings fuel awareness of lesser-known clubs and, in some cases, leagues that demand star power in order to boost their own profiles.
Whether these dreadful contracts are due to desperate, struggling clubs in bigger leagues or emerging teams backed by billionaires looking to rapidly climb the ladder, there's much more to this list than simply players undeserving of the paycheck.
(Also of note: Most players on this list are strikers, paid premium salaries in the same way that home run hitters or high-strikeout pitchers are coveted for big-play ability.)
1. Samuel Eto'o, three years, $87 million: Throughout his career, Eto'o has been a vanguard for African soccer. His current deal with Russian Premier League club Anzhi Makhachkala -- making the 31-year-old the highest-paid player in the game today -- reflects two intertwined pursuits: a big final payday for Eto'o and the foundation of his Russian club's desire to rapidly climb the world soccer elite ladder. But to pay him more than double what Cristiano Ronaldo earns? If Dagestani oligarch Suleyman Kerimov is happy -- his club also reportedly pays Eto'o's $80,000/month rent -- then who are we to argue?
2. Fernando Torres, five years, $55.8 million: The Spaniard has struggled to prove himself ever since switching from Liverpool (where he was prodigious) to Chelsea (where he's been pathetic) to satiate Roman Abramovich's vainglorious lust for big-name players. The extraordinary outlay of wages -- on top of a nearly $80M transfer fee -- would crush just about any player under the weight of expectations, though El Nino hasn't exactly helped himself with a paltry 11 Premier League goals in 54 appearances.
3. Roque Santa Cruz, four years, $23.37 million: On its face, $4.5M/yr for a serviceable Paraguayan striker -- who scored 19 Premier League goals in 2007-08 -- doesn't seem bad. Yet Santa Cruz was a victim of circumstance, signed by Manchester City right before owner Sheikh Mansour set about investing over a billion dollars in building an all-world squad. This striker quickly fell through the cracks, scoring just four times in 24 appearances for City and spending the past three seasons out on loan. The definition of "waste."
4. Nicolas Anelka, two years, $27.5 million: The tempestuous French striker is known more for his off-field exploits these days. Despite thriving for Arsenal, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Chelsea in an impressive career, he'll forever be remembered as the sullen iconoclast who mutinously torpedoed France's 2010 World Cup campaign. Yet never one to suffer, the 33-year-old found a willing suitor in China's Shanghai Shenhua, who had few qualms about making him the most expensive foreign player in Chinese Super League history.
5. Kaka, six years, $70.12 million: The Brazilian midfielder has become a sad cautionary tale, the kind that keeps football club owners awake all night. The albatross of a salary appeared to be good value for Real Madrid in 2009, yet the 2007 Ballon D'Or winner has struggled with injuries, loss of form and lack of fitness since. Now, clubs hoping to sign the 30-year-old are loath to touch a contract that has three years left to run.
6. Rafael Marquez, 3.5 years, $16.9 million: Major League Soccer's New York Red Bulls have been trying for years to find the right blend of league veterans and imported Designated Players that could win the club its first MLS Cup. Yet in signing the 33-year-old Mexican defender/midfielder in 2010, Red Bulls seemingly lost the plot. His defensive skills are still sharp, though sharper still are his attitude problems: two suspensions, injuries and occasional flirtations with leaving MLS have exposed him as a footballing lemon.
7. Dario Conca, 3.5 years, $36.4 million: As with Eto'o, the Chinese Super League is trying to expand its global profile, so what better way than to overpay for imported talent? That Guangzhou Evergrande pays the 29-year-old Argentinean (Brazilian league MVP in 2009 and 2010) more than Lionel Messi for primarily PR reasons -- not to mention the added strain it places upon the rest of the league -- makes it an unpalatable deal, though Conca did guide the club to its first-ever Asian Champions League title in 2011.
8. Neymar, three years, $31.25 million: How much is a 20-year-old soccer player worth? As much as you're willing to pay, it seems, proved by the Brazilian wunderkind's recent new contract with Santos that insulates his current team against overtures from Barcelona and Real Madrid. Though the specific figures are elusive -- Forbes estimates his deal as worth roughly $25 million, staggering for a largely impoverished country -- reports indicate that his club's sponsors are subsidizing some of his wages. There's little doubt that when he finally does leave home for European shores, his earnings will continue to climb.
9. Joe Cole, four years, $43.39 million: Free agency does happen in soccer, though it's rare for clubs to let many contracts lapse given the potential for transfer fees. The oft-injured 30-year-old English midfielder, forever believed to be the "next big thing," simply never was, but it didn't stop a Liverpool club in transition from offering him $208,000 a week to sign up after Chelsea had had enough. Injuries and loan spells have shown that to be poor value. Two goals and one assist in 22 games has also.
10. David Bentley, six years, $30 million: What is it about washed-out English talent that commands so much money in salary? Tottenham thought they'd signed their next great winger back in 2008, poaching the ex-Arsenal man from Blackburn Rovers. Yet he was quickly shunted down the depth chart and has enjoyed three loans to increasingly worse clubs -- his latest is Russian minnow FC Rostov -- while still collecting $95,000 a week.