Who are Europeans’ favorite athletes?

Who are Europeans' favorite athletes?

In Europe, football is king. Football stars are emerging as the favorite athletes of young Europeans, Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi in the lead, according to a YPulse study. But if current athletes are attractive, old sports figures continue to fascinate younger people.

Football is the sport most enjoyed by young people in Europe. Three-quarters of Europeans aged 13 to 39 watched football on screen last year, compared to just 20% for basketball and tennis, according to a study by YPulse WE Sports and Athletes Report.

Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé and Messi in the lead

Whether in Europe, the United Kingdom, Central Europe, Spain or Italy, we find Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbappé and Messi at the top of the rankings in different countries, according to the latest YPulse report.

Young Europeans, aged 13 to 39, have grown up with direct access to sports on their phones, the study highlights. This generation is unique in that they follow athletes on social media from a very young age. Cristiano Ronaldo is also the most followed personality on Instagram with 624 million followers. It’s no surprise to see him at the top of young people’s favorite athletes, both for Gen Z and for Millennials.

He shares this status with another football legend, Lionel Messi. The former Barcelona player takes the lead in Italy and Spain, while his lifelong rival, now playing in Saudi Arabia, has found favor with the English and Germans. The French, true to themselves, highlight Kylian Mbappé.

Yet upon closer inspection, Cristiano Ronaldo, also known as CR7, consistently dominates the rankings, consistently positioning himself between first and second place. In Europe, CR7 is the second preferred athlete, just like in Spain and Italy. Messi, for his part, is also present in the rankings of the five countries analyzed, but oscillates between first, second and third place.

Playing in Europe for almost two decades, the two competitors have left their mark on football fans in Europe, accumulating 13 Ballon d’Or awards between them.

Jordan, Zidane or Federer, retirees are popular

However, we should not believe that all young Europeans’ favorite sportspeople are footballers. The YPulse study reveals that young Europeans also appreciate champions from various disciplines, including athletics, tennis, basketball or gymnastics with Simone Biles, Kevin Mayer or Usain Bolt. The latter wins in three rankings: second in the United Kingdom, fourth in Europe, and sixth in Italy. We also find Serena Williams, and Roger Federer.

In addition, they often have a preference for athletes of their own nationality. Thus, around 40% of young Europeans’ favorite athletes are local athletes, such as Kylian Mbappé (football) or Teddy Rinner (judo) for young French people, Fernando Alonso (football) and Carlos Alcaraz (tennis) for young Spaniards, Jannik Sinner (tennis) or Frederica Pellegrini (swimming) for the young Italians, and Thomas Müller (football) and Manuel Neuer (football) for the Germans.

The study also highlights that young Europeans continue to appreciate retired athletes, which provides brands with additional partnership opportunities. Indeed, some of the favorite athletes of young Europeans are no longer competing, such as Zinedine Zidane, Michael Jordan or Michael Schumacher, but remain lasting sources of inspiration. Zizou ranks sixth among favorite athletes in Europe, while the former Chicago Bulls basketball player takes seventh place in the United Kingdom and Europe, but also eighth place in Central Europe. The ex-Formula 1 driver closes the rankings for Central Europe, more than ten years after his terrible accident in Méribel, Savoie (Europe).

Rankings of favorite athletes in Europe

United Kingdom

1/ Cristiano Ronaldo

2/ Usain Bolt

3/ Lionel Messi

4/ Mo Farah

5/ Serena Williams

6/ Simone Biles

7/ Michael Jordan

8/ Tom Daley

9/ David Beckham

10/ Mohamed Salah


1/ Kylian Mbappé

2/ Cristiano Ronaldo

3/ Lionel Messi

4/ Usain Bolt

5/ Teddy Riner

6/ Zinedine Zidane

7/ Michael Jordan

8/ Kevin Mayer

9/ Novak Djokovic

10/ Rafael Nadal

Central Europe

1/ Cristiano Ronaldo

2/ Lionel Messi

3/ Thomas Müller

4/ Manuel Neuer

5/ Marco Reus

6/ LeBron James

7/ Roger Federer

8/ Michael Jordan

9/ Lewis Hamilton

10/ Michael Schumacher


1/ Lionel Messi

2/ Cristiano Ronaldo

3/ Fernando Alonso

4/ Carlos Alcaraz

5/ Serena Williams

6/ Almudena Cid

7/ LeBron James

8/ Jude Bellingham

9/ Iker Casillas

10/ Michael Jordan


1/ Lionel Messi

2/ Cristiano Ronaldo

3/ Jannik Sinner

4/ Federica Pellegrini

5/ Alessandro Del Piero

6/ Usain Bolt

7/ Lorenzo Pellegrini

8/ Lautaro Martínez

9/ Roger Federer

10/ Paola Egonu

*Source: YPulse WE Sports and Athletes Survey | Base n=2,500 | January 23, 2024 – February 6, 2024 | Nationally representative sample of 2,500 young people aged 13 to 39 in the United Kingdom, Europe, Central Europe, Spain and Italy.