A Nation Obsessed: Why Joao Felix's Atletico Move Has All of Portugal Talking

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist IJuly 8, 2019

Atletico Madrid's new signing soccer player Joao Felix holds his new jersey as he poses for media during his official presentation at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid, Monday, July. 8, 2019. Atletico Madrid has reached a deal to sign Joao Felix and will sign a seven-year contract. (AP Photo/Manu Fernandez)
Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

It's not hard to find a TV tuned to Portuguese cable channel CMTV around Lisbon. Despite being criticised for its sometimes sensationalist approach, the controversial station has an impressive audience share and has led the ratings for 30 consecutive months.

If you found yourself watching in recent weeks, you will have learned plenty of banal facts about the channel's biggest recent obsession, Joao Felix—Portuguese football's newest sensation who has just joined Atletico Madrid from Benfica for an eye-popping €126 million.

From lunch bills to nightclub arrivals, the channel has been reporting on it all. It even spent several minutes discussing Felix's favourite types of pizza.

The minutiae of his life have been replicated in Correio da Manha, the most read tabloid in the country, which recently featured Felix on its cover for eight consecutive days.

Even Porto Canal, a TV channel strongly linked to rival club FC Porto, had one of its shows dedicate a significant amount of time to discussing the forward's future.

On Monday, as Felix was finally unveiled as an Atletico Madrid player, no fewer than six channels (CMTV, RTP, SIC, TVI, Sport TV, A Bola TV) broadcast the presentation live.

It all seems a bit out of control—especially when you consider that Felix only became a regular at Benfica at the start of 2019 (he started just five games in 2018) before finishing the season with 20 goals and 11 assists in 43 appearances.

Although far from being a finished product, Felix can expect the hype to ramp up even more after he became one of the most expensive players of all time.

His €126 million move smashes the €112 million fee Juventus paid for Cristiano Ronaldo, allowing Felix to overtake his idol as the most expensive Portuguese player of all time.

Felix mania is in full swing in Portugal and really started bubbling when the Portuguese league title moved towards its conclusion in late April.

Back then a growing number of Benfica fans could be seen heading to the Estadio da Luz wearing a sweatshirt that read, "Tou Felix e tu?" (including a wordplay switching "feliz" with "Felix" to ask, "I'm happy, and you?").

The hype escalated to such a point that, when Ronaldo reported for Portuguese national team duty for the recent UEFA Nations League finals, one of the headlines was, "Ronaldo junta-se a Felix" (meaning "Ronaldo joins Felix"). You heard it right: Felix, not the rest of the team.

Luis Vieira/Associated Press

Now, thanks to his price tag, Felix has found himself in the same spotlight as the world's biggest names, and not just in Portugal.

The 19-year-old will no longer be treated as a boy with braces, someone who felt the need to take a break from his vacation to publicly deny he had gotten a tattoo.

He's now big news, and he'll feel incredible pressure on his pint-sized shoulders to deliver in Madrid.

He's the face of the post-Antoine Griezmann era at the Wanda Metropolitano stadium after the Frenchman announced he will leave Atletico this summer.

A generational talent, ridiculously gifted and remarkably strong for a teenager of slim build, Felix has been talked about as Portugal's player of the next decade.

But whether he can live up to these expectations and fill the shoes of Griezmann, who is set to move to Barcelona, will largely depend on how he performs on the pitch and his ability to fit in.

As former Benfica scouting director Jose Boto warns in an interview with Bleacher Report, it would be naive to expect this process to go entirely smoothly, even if Boto is still backing the youngster to be a success.

"I believe he'll know how to handle the pressure, even though I have no doubt he'll face a lot of it," says Boto, who advised the signing of Luka Jovic, Axel Witsel and other famous starlets throughout his 11 years at Benfica and now holds a similar position at Shakhtar Donetsk.

"However, for everything that does not work at Atletico, Felix's cost will be blamed. The centre-backs make a mistake? Felix's fault. The pitch is not in good condition? Felix's fault too.

"But I think he and the club are prepared with strategies to deal with these situations.

"No matter how much talk there is about it, no team moves forward with signings of this scale without going through a huge reflection process and anticipating several scenarios."

Armando Franca/Associated Press

One of the most respected midfielders in Europe in the early 2000s, Maniche is among the footballers who have played for both Benfica and Atletico.

Felix may have signed a seven-year contract with Atletico, but the former Portugal international says that a fast start will go a long way towards making everyone more relaxed about the fee.

"It's not Felix's fault that he moved for so much money. Every player would like to play for Atletico, regardless of the numbers involved," he tells B/R.

"He's a kid with an enormous talent. If everything goes well, he scores in the first, second or maybe third game and they win, everyone will obviously forget about his transfer fee. This is a very ephemeral game–it takes a ball into the net to change it all. However, if he fails to deliver, people will come down on him hard, diminishing him.

"But then again, it would be highly unfair. After all, this a collective sport."

Maniche recalls an episode from his time at Atletico to give a glimpse of the sort of situation that awaits Felix.

"It's no secret Spaniards are a bit nationalist. I remember that when I was there, sometimes I had a superb performance, but even so the best ratings in the next morning's newspapers would go to the Spanish players. It's part of the game," he says, laughing.

"Felix needs to be mindful that pressure will come from everywhere. He'll possibly earn more than some of his team-mates. He has to be mentally prepared for what is expected of him.

"Atletico have always been a very demanding club—their fans defend them to the death. When they were relegated to the Spanish second tier, for example, their stadium was absolutely packed. It's a great team."

Portuguese players, especially ex-Benfica stars, have not had a great track record at Atletico, with their previous experiences recently highlighted in the Portuguese media as an indication that the striker could have chosen better.

Armando Franca/Associated Press

Among these voices against the La Liga club is former Benfica vice-president Rui Gomes da Silva.

"Perhaps speaking to Joao Vieira Pinto, Simao Sabrosa, [Eduardo] Salvio and [Nico] Gaitan could have helped a lot [on his decision]," Gomes da Silva wrote.

One of the brightest stars in Portugal's FIFA U20 World Cup trophies in 1989 and 1991, Pinto might have had a few things to say about Atletico.

Pinto's starring role in the first of those U20 triumphs earned him a move to Atletico, but he ended up traumatized for life. He had such an awful time with the Colchoneros that he refused to play for any other foreign side in his career.

Building a name in domestic football didn't stop Pinto from becoming a legend, although it naturally prevented him from showcasing his talent worldwide.

Since making his senior debut against Boavista in August, Felix seemed destined to move to a bigger league, even though the consensus back home is that he should have spent at least one more season with Benfica.

"Joao Felix would do well to stay in Portugal for another year," national team boss Fernando Santos suggested in a lunch with local media in June.

"It's not an issue of preferring to move or not. He's 19, he's already playing for a big club, he'll be in the Champions League, in a phase when he's developing. I think it's better [for him]—things can change overnight.

"I'm not only referring to Joao. Look at what happened to Renato [Sanches]. A big upheaval affects anybody, and not everybody can overcome it. Getting back to the top is extremely tough."

Despite being compared to Ronaldo, the fear is that Felix ends up becoming another Renato Sanches.

Renato Sanches has struggled to settle at Bayern
Renato Sanches has struggled to settle at BayernKoji Watanabe/Getty Images

Like Felix, Sanches is a product of Benfica's famed Seixal academy. A prodigiously talented midfielder, he was a joy to watch when he burst onto the scene, being dubbed a future star and courted by several of Europe's top sides in 2016. At only 18, he decided to join Bayern Munich, but he has never been the same since.

Still unable to break into the Germans' first team after three seasons, he reportedly wants to find a new club to get his career on track again.

Boto is confident that Felix will not be a "new Sanches," underlining that the circumstances of their transfers are not similar.

"Firstly, we're discussing different players when it comes to attributes, potential and maturity. They've also moved to teams that don't have the same characteristics and demands," Boto explains, adding that Felix might become a game-changer in the financial aspect of the Portuguese football.

"All these big transfers have an impact in the market—look how Vinicius Jr. and Rodrygo's fees [both now at Real Madrid] inflated the prices for youngsters in Brazil. Felix's fee is much higher and will certainly have an effect [in Portugal too]."

Maniche suggests that while Felix seems to be better prepared than Sanches, his astonishing valuation growth in six months is not just down to his brilliance. There are other factors to consider, such as the international reputation of Benfica's academy and his association with superagent Jorge Mendes.

"Evidently, each case is different, but I understand it might be inevitable to compare Felix and Sanches. Both of them came from Benfica, moved to great teams. Despite that, the most important thing to take into consideration is their mental strength, if they will be able to remain humble, relying on their families," Maniche says.

"As far as I know, Felix's parents keep his feet on the ground, don't let fame get into his head. It's paramount to have this support. Some players do, others don't.

"We've already watched players of this caliber coming through at Porto and Sporting too, but they weren't from Benfica, nor had Jorge Mendes as their agent. He's the best in the world, someone who can make miracles like this happen. His reputation helps increase the valuation of players.

"I'm not saying Felix is not highly talented, but it's one thing to be a player from Benfica and another totally different thing to be from Porto and Sporting. Even though they have good players too, they are talked about at a different level. They don't have the same international reach."

PORTO, PORTUGAL - JUNE 05: Joao Felix of Portugal in action during the UEFA Nations League Semi-Final match between Portugal and Switzerland at Estadio do Dragao on June 05, 2019 in Porto, Portugal. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)
Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images

As expected, Atletico Madrid president Enrique Cerezo did not engage much in the price tag debate and simply stated that he thinks Felix "is worth €126 million."

A strong finisher with both feet and head, very intelligent and capable of creating opportunities in and around the box, the Portuguese phenomenon is impossible to take your eyes off.

Still considered an unproven replacement for Griezmann, he might get a key role from the start with Diego Simeone to prove he's the right man to guide Atletico into the new decade and beyond.

"As with any projection, we are subject to mistakes, but it seems to me that the margin of error with Felix is minimal—we can affirm with some safety that he'll be one of the top players in the future," Boto predicts.

"I have no doubt about his quality or that he has joined a fantastic side, but do have some doubts whether Simeone is the right coach to maximize his potential," Maniche adds.

Lots of questions and yet one certainty as the new season approaches: Felix will be one of the must-follow stories of the season. Portugal, and indeed the world, will be watching.

           

Follow Marcus on Twitter: @_marcus_alves

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