Right player, wrong place, wrong time

If this was the last time Joao Felix walked off the pitch at the Metropolitano, at least he did it a starter, a striker, a man of the match and cheered all the way. This was not always the case, and getting such a response was not always the case either. Forty-nine days later, LaLiga was back; for the Portugal player it was natural to wonder if it might just be for one night, and there was no certainty that he would get a decent send-off after 3½ years here if it turned out to be one. There is also no certainty that a night like this, the kind of night he is supposed to have, will change anything either.

“What has to happen will happen,” said the coach of Atletico Madrid, 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 seems now, is for the former Benfica prodigy to leave Spain and go to, well, pretty much anywhere that will have him Anywhere but here. At least that’s what Atletico’s owner and CEO says, and the fact that he said so makes it all the more likely. On December 6, what was already an open secret became no secret at all: as the second phase of the World Cup began in Qatar, Miguel Angel Gil Marin was also there and publicly admitted that if there was a chance for Joao Felix is. to leave then Atletico must “at least analyze it.”

At least.

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“Joao Felix is ​​the biggest ‘bet’ this club has made in its history,” said Gil Marin. “I personally think he has world-class talent, as a player and as a person, but it’s true that for reasons it’s not worth going into now, the relationship between the coach and him, the minutes he’s played and his motivation is right. now let’s think that the reasonable thing to do is that if a good option appears for him and for the club, we should at least analyze it. Personally, I would like him to continue, but I think that the player has other ideas now. “

And there it was. In a rule, Gil Marin publicly put Joao Felix on the market and blamed – how handy – on the player and the manager rather than any of the other elements at play, or those involved in the signing of € 126 million in 2019, or his problems justifying that fee since then. In fact, not only did 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 bargaining position.

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The reality is that so far Atletico say they have not had a real bid for him. While this is not the dramatic statement, it may sound like: it may have been three weeks since Gil Marin’s comments, but it’s not even January, the market hasn’t even opened yet. But still, they even hinted 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 entire history. Only two players have ever asked for higher fees, and they are both at Paris Saint-Germain.

Paying a transfer fee of €126 million for a teenager was always going to be a high price, but built into the deal was the plan to sell once his value grew, a pledge made by Jorge Mendes, the agent with whom Atletico is very close. At that price and that age it seemed risky at the time; this is simply not the case now. Which means that just as Atletico openly admit 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 having come this far, it seems like an even worse prospect than saying goodbye. (Or so they think: it’s tempting to wonder if actually being stuck might be the best thing that could happen to them.)

His is a departure that would be good for everyone, which is how bad it has gotten. A player who doesn’t like his coach, a coach who doesn’t like his player much, a club who would rather cut their losses, an agent who wants to increase his profit quite a bit, if not quite as much as he should . , and fans wondering what it was all for and whether or not they like him or should mourn his departure.

They are left with a sense of… not exactly loss, more just, well, sort of not much. That uneasy feeling of four slightly empty years, of nothing really accomplished, no real mark left. A feeling that is actually not entirely fair, but inescapable. What could have been – what could have been for another club – but never really was. If they have to remember Joao Felix, it would be nice to remember him as he was on Thursday night when he scored a goal, played brilliantly, did things others just can’t do and left exhausted after giving his all, the place that cheered him as he went. .

The fact that he played like that made it better and also made it worse. Performances like this could happen, they knew, but didn’t happen often enough. Expectation conditioned everything, which it always does. The context does this too, widening the blame, the gulf as to where 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 will be the right place can be. It’s also hard to avoid wondering if he really was that good.

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Now many look at him and think the best scenario for Atletico is not so much based on him, but on how much money they can generate from his transfer and who they can get to replace him. That it came to this feels like a pity, a waste. And maybe not entirely necessary, even if it also feels strangely inevitable.

Joao Felix joined Atletico aged just 19 and 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 span, plus nine assists, plus three goals and an assist in the Europa League. He was different, exciting, talented. And at times he was in 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 previous season, 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 might have been the best player in Spain. He started this season with three assists in a single game. And yet, when Atletico crashed out of Europe, he wasn’t 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 changed the way they played and took Atletico closer to the opposition’s territory. It made Joao Felix a central piece in the early months of their title-winning season, a period when it looked like 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.” That was the rule and it was genuine admiration, almost awe, but it came with a kind of reproach: when he wants. That was two years ago now, and maybe that was it in a nutshell, even then, even when everything was fine. Somehow it never felt quite right, or at least not long enough, like he hadn’t done enough to fit and they hadn’t done enough to fit him – everyone’s fault and no one’s a not.

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In Qatar, Joao Felix admitted that things feel different in the national team, “the way of playing and the luck.” To be honest, there was little else he could really say, once put on the spot, but it also left a hint of something not right in Spain, which was already pretty much accepted by everyone. When asked about Joao Felix’s World Cup performances, Simeone meanwhile replied that it is “a competition that is ideal for him: short, where beauty is seen, where players like him are in 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 needing to be said.

Even now, it’s easy enough to think: what if Simeone moves on? Maybe Joao Felix can star then? There’s a part of you that thinks: if no one comes in for him, maybe that’s the catalyst for the explosion? That part of you that knows he’s only 23.

There was an element of that on Thursday when Atletico’s Twitter account posted a picture of him. “Our no. 7,” reads the headline. But this is a fourth season and few expect him to be their no. 7 will be; fewer still seem willing to fight more for it. The battle now seems to be trying to make the best of it.

There might not even be that much sadness when he goes, which might be the saddest thing of all. Thursday, who started the game as a sub after seven straight games and yet also scored for the fourth game in a row, there were glimpses of the talent, but few really latched onto it. At least the goodbye, if that’s what it was, was a good one. Some instead feared a good dismissal: whistles, boos, the fans delivering a guilty verdict. Yet the time for reconciliation also seems to be over, no turning back now, just a kind of soft regret. As the fans cheered him off the pitch, there was a sense of: well, it wasn’t to be.

Asked if that might change things, Simeone said: “I think about the players who are here with me. I give everything and push them until the last moment. I try to do what’s best for the club. And then what must happen will happen – and it doesn’t depend on me.”


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