Hidden cameras have a habit of removing the mask, stripping away any filters to reveal the truth — the truth is that Portugal’s Joao Felix is very, very good at football.
It was half-time in Atlético Madrid’s Champions League meeting with Salzburg on Oct. 27 and down in the tunnel at the Metropolitano, just before the players headed back out again, microphones picked up a conversation between Saul Níguez and Jan Oblak, catching words the pair wouldn’t want heard, as blunt and direct as they are real.
“What a bastard that guy is,” Saúl says, fondly. “When he wants to, he can change the game, man… Get the ball, and get up there, enjoy yourself.”
Oblak doesn’t say much, but he says it all.
“Madre mía,” he replies, “he’s so good, madre.”
Now here’s the thing: they might be protective of their profession, sometimes stung by criticism from outside, where too few realise that even the worst player in the worst league is brilliant, but virtually no-one is more dismissive of footballers than footballers themselves. Privately, at least; at the top end, certainly. Maybe it’s the context or the familiarity, a realisation of just how good you really have to be to be good in that company and the standards set, but players can write off another player in the blink of an eye.
You’re supposed to be good; that part’s taken for granted. So when they say the opposite — not publicly, but privately — it means something, too. It means more, in fact. Footballers are not so easy with the eulogies, not among themselves. It matters when they say someone is special; when they someone is, well, better than them. Not just because of what they say, but who says it and how. When one player tells another player bloody hell, he can play, as Saúl and Oblak did, he really can play.
That night, Joao Felix did, and nor was it just that night. As for getting the ball, getting up the pitch and enjoying himself, he did that too. He changed the game, scoring twice in a 3-2 win. Three days later, he scored twice to lead Atlético to a 3-1 win at Osasuna. A week after that, he got two more against Cádiz, momentarily taking Atlético top of the league. And then he came on to score a lovely volley for Portugal, applauded by Cristiano Ronaldo.
“I already said that Joao would be Ronaldo’s replacement,” said his international teammate, Diogo Jota. It was the day after Joao Felix’s 21st birthday.
Asked if he was carrying a weight on his back, Joao Felix replied: “I don’t have any ‘rucksack’ — what I like is playing football. If I enjoy it, I’m happy. And if I’m happy, you can see it in my play.”
He’s happy, then. It might not be a huge leap to suggest that Joao Felix is the best player in Spain right now and, as Jota notes, Portugal’s natural heir to Ronaldo. Big words perhaps, but they don’t sound like such an exaggeration now. Against Croatia tomorrow night, he will be expected to lead. He will welcome that, too.
Second-top scorer with five league goals, one behind Mikel Oyarzabal, he also has three assists. Across all competitions, he has seven in 10 games. Against Salzburg it was the one he didn’t score — an overhead kick against the bar — that was his best effort, an intake of breath audible inside the empty arena. As if it was about the goals anyway; instead, it was how he ran the game, rising above the rest.
Joao Felix was always going to be a bit special. There is a reason Atlético spent €127m on him, a club record. Well, there are many reasons, but one of them is a quality they believed could be generational. He was even presented as an Atletico player at the Prado museum — in essence, an artist surrounded by artists. “He has acne, but the seriousness of a grown man,” Jorge Valdano said, seeing in him a hint of early Kaká, the soft touch of a classic No.10. A poll in the sports daily Marca this week even asked if he was the most talented player in the club’s entire history.
The man who discovered him said he would be a future Ballon d’Or winner, which he would, but that no longer sounds so silly. And yet, a year ago, it might have done. Twelve months on, it feels like he has found his place and they have found him.
“It’s been a good start,” Joao Felix said and “start” is the word, of course: it is early still, sure, and progression can slow or stop entirely. Momentum can be lost, moments gone forever. Injuries can ruin everything and teams can change, opportunities denied. But he is already just two goals away from equalling his total for goals and assists from the whole of last season. “It’s clear that there’s growth,” Diego Simeone said.
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On a basic level, it’s natural that there should be improvement. He arrived aged 19, a kid. He had only had one year as a professional in Portugal. A year on, it makes sense that he should have adapted better to Atletico. And yet it’s not just him adapting; it is them too. This is a different looking Atletico side, conditioning and conditioned by him, the dependence mutual. The trust, too. There’s a look of liberation about him, a freedom in his football. That’s a mental process; it is also a mechanical one. And it is self-perpetuating, confidence and contribution growing, a sense of belonging.
“He’s a crack, a star. It’s obvious that when he got freedom, which he is getting now, you would see the class of player he is,” said Ángel Correa. “We know he is a different player and the more he has the ball, the more danger he is going to create and that’s going to be good for the team.”
Things are changing at Atletico. Joao Felix benefits from that and that in turn benefits them. In the middle of it, he becomes as a central figure, a leader, responsibility coming with that freedom. Atletico have been here before — in recent years, the idea of evolving into something a little more expansive only for that process to stall or be reversed is a recurring theme — and so it makes sense to be cautious about reaching conclusions. Yet this is a team keener to have the ball, playing higher up the pitch, less inclined to go long or seek counter-attacks and more likely to accumulate players around the opposition’s area.
Even in formation there is a change, more intent on playing three up front. Results reinforce that, performances do too: Atletico are the only unbeaten team in Spain, not defeated in over 20 league games and counting.
The shifting structure, Simeone says, has its roots in the arrival of Luis Suarez. The Uruguayan is not a striker like Morata or Costa, and Atletico’s manager has talked about how that changes the entire shape of the side. “All this is generated from Suarez,” he says. “Luis needs people near him, to live where he can hurt teams; the team is working to find ways to do the hardest thing, which is score goals.”
Those people near him include Joao Felix and while Simeone framed it in terms of helping Suarez, it has been good for the young Portugal star too. Suárez not only gives Joao someone to play to and off, but he occupies defenders, “fixing” them and clearing space close to the area. “Joao gets freedom from Suárez,” Koke says.
It would not be right to look solely at the Uruguayan — Joao Felix was superb in Suarez’s absence at Osasuna and has publicly expressed how well he combines with Ángel Correa as well — but the shift has brought with it a positional change that seems to suit him too: from playing to the right, he is now more often off the forward, slightly to the left.
Confidence grows, and consistency does too. As does the work rate; there are defensive duties too. While praising him, Saul’s remark to Oblak hinted at that sense that internally, some teammates demanded the best of Joao Felix more often. Greater character perhaps, more leadership, more willingness to drag them forward with him. This season, as all these factors come together, they’re getting it.
Where last season it felt like there was uncertainty, as if Simeone was not always sure, the embrace is more complete now. Joao Felix is not just enjoying playing; he seems to be enjoying and fulfilling the responsibility too, the demands, embracing his duty to take charge. And to do so consistently. And when a player that talented is nurtured, encouraged and responds, when he and they fit together, everyone benefits.
“Against Granada, he was one of the best, in Huesca [too], in Villarreal he played well. At Celta he didn’t produce his best but he ended the game well,” Simeone said after that superb display at Osasuna.
Asked about Joao’s freedom, the coach insisted: “Even the best player in the world has a place in the team. Freedom isn’t playing anywhere, its playing where you can be most important for the team. When Messi plays on the right, it’s because it’s good for the team. When Ronaldo plays on the left, it’s fundamental for the team. Players are important when their teammates make them so.”
And you know they are when their teammates say so, especially if they don’t know you’re listening in. Sometimes for all the words, all the analysis, the stats and the feelings, the simplest, most basic, most direct judgement of all is the best, if it comes from the right place.
“Madre mia, he’s good”, Oblak said.