IF there is one fantasy we can dispense with once and for all, it is that football clubs are necessarily loss-making entities. It used to be that you owned one out of love, passion, a sense of responsibility, ego or ancillary benefits to your other businesses, but never really because you planned on making money. That is no longer the case with the numbers speaking volumes.

Uefa’s annual bench-marking report, released last week, showed European clubs recording aggregate operating profits of £733 million. Indeed, after three consecutive seasons of losses, over the past four years total operating profits have been close to £2.5 billion. That is the figure across Europe’s top flights, covering some 600 clubs from San Marino to the Premier League, but since the majority of teams outside the top-10 leagues have comparatively tiny turnovers, the point remains: professional football is popular and lucrative for those who run it.

And, if you look at the larger picture, adding in transfers, tax, depreciation, non-operating costs and so on, the bottom-line figure shows that as a whole, European football has gone from around £1.6bn in losses in 2011 (not coincidentally the year Financial Fair Play was introduced) to just over £200m in losses. That is a stunning, paradigm-shifting turnaround in five years. And while the largest beneficiaries have been at the top – a worrying trend – 70 per cent of clubs in Europe’s Big Five Leagues reported bottom-line profits, suggesting that while the super-rich are getting richer, in most places the middle class are doing OK.

It’s a notable juxtaposition with the eye-watering wage details revealed last week surrounding Neymar and Lionel Messi. The Brazilian’s salary, as revealed by Football Leaks, is 20 per cent higher than originally reported. Paris Saint-Germain pay him a basic wage of around £33m a season. But that is dwarfed by the deal Messi signed in the summer.

The Barcelona forward, who was one year away from free agency, has a basic wage of £62.5m. He also received a signing bonus of £56m when he extended his contract. And, provided he doesn’t leave the Camp Nou before 2021, he will receive an additional loyalty bonus of £61m. Put a different way, Messi will earn close to £370m in four years, excluding endorsement and commercial deals and bog-standard add-ons and performance bonuses, like the £11m he will be due if Barcelona win the Champions League. Averaged out season-by-season, he is set to earn on his own more than what Celtic, who lest we forget, are an actual corporation employing hundreds of people, made last year.

It is easy to get numb to wages as they spiral higher and higher.

But what we are seeing is that, at the highest end – and it’s worth remembering that Messi may well be the greatest player and Neymar his heir apparent – performers are getting a bigger and bigger slice of the pie, much like their colleagues in music and cinema. And given the flow of money into the game, you could argue that, if anything, they have been underpaid until now.

Viewed through that lens, the deal Alexis Sanchez has reportedly agreed with Manchester United – and which, before we get ahead of ourselves, had not actually gone through yet at the time of writing – becomes a little less preposterous. He is not Messi or Neymar, but in the broader context and given his circumstances – free agency in less than six months – there is a logic to it. Whether United could have used those funds more efficiently, what the knock-on effect on other players’ wages might be and how he fits into the side is another matter and one that will be scrutinised when/if the deal is finalised.

But the simple fact of the matter is that footballers are now catching up to the gravy train. At least that 0.01 per cent of players who are deemed to be difference-makers.

THERE was also a cautionary tale during the week involving someone who inhabits those very same echelons at the top of the game. News that Real Madrid were willing to part ways with Cristiano Ronaldo – who, by the way, happens to be reigning Ballon d’Or winner – made shock waves.

More than 120,000 Madrid supporters chimed in on a poll on whether it was time to sell him and more than two-thirds said yes. And while Zinedine Zidane said he couldn’t imagine Real Madrid without Ronaldo, you wonder whether the club wouldn’t be better off if he disappeared and left a giant pile of cash in his place.

In some ways, Ronaldo is simply paying the price for being the face of a club that is enduring a horrendous season. He has been poor, sure, but so have most of his team-mates and that goes some way towards explaining why they went into the weekend 19 points behind Barcelona and stuck in fourth place.

He would point to the fact he has scored 16 goals this season, twice as many as his most prolific team-mate. His critics might retort that just four of those have come in La Liga and that at the same stage last season

he had 25.

The thing about Ronaldo is that he turns 33 next month, earns £38m a season and has a contract through until 2021. He only signed his contract 18 months ago and it may well have seemed to have made sense at the time, but the knock-on effect is enormous. You can count on one hand the number of clubs that can afford wages of that magnitude, even in the new cash-rich landscape, and, at the same time, would appeal to the Portuguese superstar.

That means the odds of Madrid receiving the proverbial “offer they can’t refuse” and somehow engineering a mutually beneficial exit are extremely slim. Madrid and Ronaldo are bound at the hip, for better or worse, for the next three years. Not only does that tie up a big chunk of their wage bill, it also limits what a manager can do. You can redraw whatever tactical schemes you like and move personnel around, but you are not going to bench Ronaldo. Whatever you do, you have to make it work with him. And that’s not easy, particularly for a club that is looking to retool and relaunch.