If this was the last time Joao Felix walked off the field at the Metropolitano, at least he did so a starter, a goalscorer, a man of the match and applauded all the way. That wasn’t always the case, and getting such a reaction wasn’t always the case either. Forty-nine days later, LaLiga was back; For the Portuguese national team player, it was natural to wonder if it could be for one night, and there had been no certainty that after 3½ years here, he would get a decent send-off, if that turned out to be the case. There’s also no guarantee that a night like this, the kind of night he’s going to have, will change anything either.
“What has to happen will happen,” Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said.
Sometimes that’s not even true — all too often what needs to happen isn’t what needs to happen at all — but what needs to happen now is for the former Benfica prodigy to leave Spain and go to almost anywhere he wants have him. Anywhere but here. At least that’s what Atletico’s owner and CEO says, and the fact that he said it makes it all the more likely. On December 6, what was already an open secret became no secret at all: when the second phase of the World Cup kicked off in Qatar, Miguel Angel Gil Marin was there too, publicly admitting that if there is a chance for Joao Felix to leave, Atletico should “at least analyze it”.
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“Joao Felix is the biggest “investment” this club has made in its history, said Gil Marin. “Personally, I think he has world-class talent, as a player and a person, but it is true that for reasons that are not worth putting get into now, the relationship between the manager and him, the minutes he has played and his motivation right now makes us think that the sensible thing to do is that if a good option for him and the club comes up, we should at least analyze it. Personally, I would love him to continue, but I think right now the player has other ideas.”
And there it was. In one line, Gil Marin had publicly put Joao Felix on the market and blamed – how conveniently – the player and the manager rather than any of the other elements at play, or those involved in his signing for €126m in 2019, or his difficulties with justifying this fee since then. In fact, not only had Gil Marin put Joao Felix on the market, you couldn’t help but wonder if he might have already agreed a deal. Otherwise, it didn’t seem like the most sensible negotiating tactic, likely to limit Joao Felix’s value and weaken Atletico’s negotiating position.
The reality is that so far Atletico say they have not had an actual bid for him. Although not the dramatic statement it may sound like: it may well be three weeks since Gil Marin’s comments, but it’s not even January yet, the market hasn’t even opened. But still, they have even hinted that they would be open to a loan offer, at least in the short term. And yes, take a step back and it’s a loan deal for a player whose transfer fee was more – almost twice as much – than anyone else in their history. Only two players have ever demanded higher fees and they are both at Paris Saint-Germain.
Paying a transfer fee of €126 million for a teenager was always a high price, but built into the deal was the plan to sell on, once his value had grown, a promise made by Jorge Mendes, the agent with whom Atletico are very close. At that price and that age it seemed risky then; that is simply not the case now. Which means that just as Atletico openly admit that they want to get rid of the deal and that Joao Felix wants out, everyone is forced to face the fact that it’s not even possible. And having come this far, it seems like an even worse prospect than saying goodbye. (Or so they think: it’s tempting to wonder if being stuck might be the best thing that could happen to them.)
His is a departure that would be good for everyone, and that’s how bad it’s gotten. A player who doesn’t like his manager, a manager who doesn’t seem to like his player, a club who would rather cut their losses, an agent who would like to increase profits, if not quite as much as he should, and fans who wondered what it was for something, and whether they like him or not, whether they should regret his departure.
They’re left with a sense of…not loss exactly, more just, well, sort of not much. The uncomfortable feeling of four somewhat empty years, of nothing really achieved, no real traces left. A feeling that may not actually be entirely fair, but is inevitable. What might have been — what might still be for another club — but never really was. If they are going to remember Joao Felix, it would be nice to remember him as Thursday night when he scored a goal, played excellently, did things others just can’t do and left exhausted after giving everything, the place applauding him as he left. .
The fact that he played this way made it better and also made it worse. Such performances could happen, they knew, but did not happen often enough. The expectation conditioned everything, which it always does. The context does so too, which widens the blame, the divide over where the responsibility lies. It’s hard to avoid the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Joao Felix was the right player in the wrong place at the wrong time, to avoid clinging to the hope that maybe, just maybe, one day it could be the right place. It’s also hard to avoid wondering if he was actually that good.
Now many look at him and believe that the best case scenario for Atletico is not based so much on him but on how much money they can generate from his transfer and who they can get to replace him. That it has come to this feels like a shame, a waste. And perhaps not entirely necessary, although it feels strangely inevitable too.
Joao Felix joined Atletico at the age of just 19 and having played just 26 first division matches. He should never have cost so much money, and this is the original sin. But there was clearly something special there: There were 15 goals in that period, plus nine assists, plus three goals and an assist in the Europa League. He was different, exciting, talented. And at times he has been to Spain. His stats are actually quite good: four goals and four assists in LaLiga so far this season, eight goals and four assists last season, seven goals and six assists the season before, six goals and one assist the season before – his first in Spain.
When Atletico won the league in 2020-21, at the halfway mark (or at least around November, when they were still unbeaten) there was an argument to suggest he might have been the best player in Spain. He began this season with three assists in a single game. And yet, when Atletico crashed out of Europe, he was not in the team. When they went to Portugal to play the final stages of the Champions League in the Covid-affected 2019-20 season, he did not play.
Luis Suarez’s arrival had changed the way they played, taking Atletico closer to the opposition area. It made Joao Felix a central piece in the first months of their title-winning season, a period when it looked like he might lead a shift in identity, their move towards someone else, someone good.
There was a moment that season when Saul and Jan Oblak were caught on camera swooning over him. “When he wants to, he can change the game, man.” That was the line and there was real admiration, almost awe, but it came with a kind of reproach: when he wants. That was two years ago now, and maybe it was in a nutshell, even then, even when everything was fine. Somehow it never felt quite right, or at least not for long enough, like he didn’t do enough to fit and they didn’t do enough to make him fit – everyone’s fault and nobody’s.
In Qatar, Joao Felix admitted that things feel different in the national team, “the way of playing and the luck”. In fairness, there was little else he could really say once he was put on the spot, but it also left a hint of something not quite back in Spain that had already been pretty much accepted by everyone. When Simeone was asked about Joao Felix’s World Cup performances, meanwhile, he replied that this was “a competition that is ideal for him: short, where beauty is seen, where players like him love.” As compliments go, it could hardly have been more backhanded, the accusation that he is not committed or consistent with his club, said without having to be said.
Even now, it’s easy enough to think: what if Simeone moves on? Maybe then Joao Felix can play the main role? There’s a part of you that thinks: If no one comes in for him, maybe that’s the catalyst for the explosion? The part of you that knows he’s still only 23.
There was an element of that on Thursday then Atletico’s Twitter account posted a picture of him. “Our No. 7”, read the headline. But this is a fourth season and few expect him to be their No.7 for much longer; fewer seem prepared to fight for it anymore. The match now seems to be trying to make the best of it.
There may not even be that much sadness when he leaves, which is perhaps the saddest thing of all. On Thursday, starting after seven consecutive games as a sub and still scoring for the fourth game in a row, there was a glimpse of the talent, but few really stuck with it any longer. At least the goodbye, if that’s what it was, was good. Some had feared a good reception instead: whistles, boos, the supporters gave a guilty verdict. But the time for reconciliation seemed to have passed as well, no going back now, just a kind of mild remorse. As the fans applauded him from the pitch, there was a sense of: well, it wasn’t supposed to be.
Asked if this could change things, Simeone said: “I think about the players who are here with me. I give everything and push them to the last minute. I try to do what is best for the club. And then what has to happen. will happen – and it does not depend on me.”