If this was the last time Joao Felix went off the field in the metropolitan, at least he did it a starter, a goal scorer, a man of the match and applauded all the way. That’s not always the case, and getting a reaction like that isn’t always the case either. 49 days later, LaLiga is back; For the Portugal international, it’s natural to wonder if it could just be one night, and there was no certainty that after 3½ years here he would get a decent send-off, if there was one. Nor is there any certainty that such a night, such a night that he should have, will also change something.
“What has to happen will happen,” said Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone.
Sometimes that’s not even true – too often what needs to happen isn’t what happens at all – but what needs to happen, it now seems, is for the former Benfica prodigy to leave Spain and go to, well, almost anywhere that will have him. Anywhere but here. That’s what Atlético’s owner and CEO says, at least, 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 in any secret: as the second phase of the World Cup was starting 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 ‘bet’ the club has made in its history,” Gil Marin said. “Personally, I think he has a world-class talent, as a player and a person, but it is true that for reasons that are not worth entering now, the relationship between the coach and him, the minutes he played and His motivation right. Now make us think that the reasonable thing to do is that if a good option comes out for him and for the club we should at least analyze it personally, I would love him to continue but I think that right now the player had other ideas.”
And it was. In a line, Gil Marin publicly put Joao Felix on the market and the blame – how handy – on the player and the manager rather than any of the other elements at play, or those involved in him signing for €126 million in 2019, Or his difficulty in justifying the fee since. In fact, not only did Gil Marin put Joao Felix on the market, you can’t help wondering if he might have already agreed to a deal. Otherwise, it didn’t seem like the most sensible negotiating tactic, likely to limit the value of Joao Felix and weaken Atletico’s bargaining position.
The fact is that until now Atletico say that they have not had a real bid for him. Although this is not the dramatic statement it may sound like: it may be three weeks since Gil Marin’s comments, but it is not even January yet, the market has not even opened. But still, they even intimated that they would be open to a loan offer, at least in the short term. And yes, take a step back, and this is 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 commanded higher fees, and they are both at Paris Saint-Germain.
Paying a €126m transfer fee for a teenager was always going to be a high price, but the deal included the plan to sell on once his value increased, a promise made by Jorge Mendes, the agent with whom Atletico are very close . At that price and that age, it seemed risky then; It is simply not the case now. Which means that just as Atlético openly admitted that they would like to get rid of the deal and that Joao Felix would like to get out, everyone is forced to face the prospect that it is not even possible. And after coming this far, it seems like an even worse prospect than buying goodbye. (Or so they think: it’s tempting to wonder if actually getting stuck might be the best thing that could happen to them.)
His is a departure that would be good for everyone, no matter how bad it got. A player who does not like his coach, a coach who is not as much as his player, a club that would prefer to reduce their losses, an agent who would like to increase his profit, if not exactly as he should. , and fans wondering what it was all for and whether they like him or not, whether they should mourn him leaving.
They are left with a sense of…not loss exactly, more just, well, kind of not much. The awkward feeling of four somewhat empty years, of nothing really accomplished, no real mark left. A feeling that, actually, may not be entirely fair, but is inescapable. What could have been – what still could have been for some other club – but never really was. If they want to remember Joao Felix, it would be nice to remember him as on Thursday night when he scored a goal, played superbly, did things that others just can’t do and left exhausted after giving everything, the place applauded him as he left .
The fact that he played like that made it better and also worse. Such performances could happen, they knew, but not often enough. Expectation conditions everything, which it always does. The context also does, which increases the blame, the division 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, it might one day be the right place. It’s also hard to avoid wondering if he’s really that good.
Now, many look at him and think that the best-case scenario for Atlético is based not so much on him, but on how much money they can generate from his transfer and what they can get to replace him. When it came to this, it feels like a shame, a waste. And perhaps not entirely necessary, even as it feels oddly inevitable, either.
Joao Felix joined Atletico aged just 19 and still played just 26 first-division games. He should never have cost so much money, and that is the original sin. But there was clearly something special there: there were 15 goals in that spell, plus nine assists, plus three goals and an assist in the Europa League. He was different, exciting, talented. And sometimes he was in Spain. His stats are actually pretty 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 stage (or at least around November, when they were still unbeaten), there was an argument to suggest he could be the best player in Spain. He started the season with three assists in a single game. And yet, as 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 shifted the way they played, taking Atlético closer to the opposition area. This made Joao Felix a central piece in the early months of their title-winning season, a period when it seemed he could lead a shift in identity, their move to 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.” This was the line and there was genuine admiration, almost awe, but it came with a kind of reproach: when he wants. This was two years ago now, and maybe it was in a nutshell, even then, even when everything was going well. Somehow it never felt quite right, or at least not for long enough, like he hadn’t done enough to pass and they hadn’t done enough to pass him – 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 is still little that he could really say, once put on the spot, but it also left a hint of something not immediately back in Spain, which was already well received by everyone. When Simeone was asked about Joao Felix’s World Cup performances, he meanwhile replied that it was “a competition that is ideal for him: short, where beauty is seen, where players like him loved.” As compliments go, it could hardly have been more back handed, the accusation that he is not committed or consistent with his club, said without needing to be said.
Even now it’s easy enough to think: What if Simon moves on? Maybe then Joao Felix can star? There’s a part of you that thinks: if no one comes in for him, maybe that’s the catalyst for the rebound? The part of you that knows he’s still only 23.
There was an element of what on Thursday when Atlético’s Twitter account posted a photo of him. “Our number 7,” the caption. But this is a fourth season and few expect him to be their number 7 much longer; Fewer still seem willing to fight for it anymore. The battle now seems to be trying to make the best of it.
There may not even be that much sadness when he goes, which is perhaps the saddest thing of all. On Thursday, starting the match after seven successive games as a sub and also scoring for the fourth game in a row, there was a glimpse of this talent, but few really cling to it anymore. At least the goodbye, if that’s what it was, was a good one. Some feared instead a good speech: whistles, boos, the supporters give a guilty verdict. But the time for reconciliation had also passed, no return now, only a kind of mild regret. As the fans applauded him from the pitch, there was a feeling of: Well, it was not to be.
Asked if that could change things, Simeone said: “I think of the players who are here with me. I give everything and push them until the last minute. I try to do what’s best for the club. And then what’s needed Happen will happen – and it doesn’t depend on me.”