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 as a starter, goalscorer, man of the match and applauded all the way. This was not always the case, and it was not always the case to accept a reaction like this. Forty-nine days later, LaLiga is back. for the Portugal international, it was natural to wonder if it might just be one night, and there was no certainty that after 3½ years here he would get a decent send-off if it turned out to be. Nor is there any certainty that a night like this, the kind of night it’s supposed to be, will change anything.

“What has to happen will happen,” said Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone.

Sometimes that’s not even true — very often what needs to happen isn’t what’s happening at all — but what needs to happen, it seems now, is for the former Benfica prodigy to leave Spain and go pretty much anywhere . to have him Anywhere but here. At least that’s what Atlético’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: as the second phase of the World Cup in Qatar got underway, Miguel Angel Gil Marin was also there, publicly admitting that if there was a chance for Joao Felix to leave then the Atlético should “at least analyze it”.

At least.

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“Joao Felix is ​​the biggest ‘bet’ this club has made in its history,” said Gilles Marin. “Personally, I think he has world-class talent, as a player and as a person, but it’s true that for reasons that aren’t worth going into now, the manager’s relationship with him, the minutes he’s played and his motivation right. now make us think that the logical thing to do is that if a good option for him and for the club comes up we should at least look at it. Personally I would love for him to continue but I think at the moment the player has other ideas. “

And there it was. In one series, Gil Marin had publicly dumped Joao Felix on the market and the blame — how convenient — on the player and manager and not on any of the other elements at play, or those involved in his signing for 126 million euros 2019, or his difficulties justifying this remuneration since then. In fact, not only did Gil Marin put Joao Felix on the market, but you couldn’t help but wonder if he might have already agreed a deal. Otherwise, it didn’t seem like the most logical negotiating tactic, likely to limit the value of Joao Felix and weaken Atletico’s negotiating position.

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The reality is that so far Atletico say they have had no real offer for him. While this is not as dramatic a statement as it may sound: it may well be three weeks since Gil Marin’s comments, but it’s not yet January, the market hasn’t even opened. However, they have indicated 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 his entire history. Only two players have ever earned higher fees and they are both at Paris Saint-Germain.

Paying a transfer fee of €126m for a teenager was always going to be a high price, but built into the deal was the plan to sell him when his value had risen, a promise made by Jorge Mendes, Atletico’s agent. very close. At that price and at that age, it seemed dangerous then. it just doesn’t apply now. Which means that with Atletico openly admitting that they would like to be rid of the deal and that Joao Felix would like to leave, everyone is forced to face the prospect that it’s not even possible. And having come this far, it seems like an even worse prospect than goodbye. (Or so they think: it’s tempting to wonder if getting hitched might actually be the best thing that could happen to them.)

It’s a departure that would be good for everyone, how bad it’s gotten. A player who doesn’t like his manager, a manager who doesn’t seem to like his player very much, a club who prefers to cut his losses, an agent who would love to increase his profits, if not as he should , and fans are wondering what it was all for and whether or not they like it, if they should mourn that it’s gone.

They’re left with a sense of … not exactly loss, more fairly, well, kind of not much. That awkward feeling of four slightly empty years, of nothing really accomplished, no real sign left. A feeling that, in reality, may not be entirely fair, but it is inevitable. What it might have been — what it might still be for some other club — but it never really was. If they want 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 couldn’t do and left exhausted with everything, the place applauding him as he went. .

The fact that he played this way made it both better and worse. Performances like this could happen, they knew, but they didn’t happen often enough. Expectation determined everything, which it always does. The context also makes, which widens guilt, the gap about 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 getting stuck in the hope that maybe, just maybe, he could one day be the right place. It’s also hard to avoid wondering if he was really that good.

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Now, many look at him and believe that the best case scenario for Atlético is not so much based on him but on how much money they can make from his transfer and who they can get to replace him. That it has come to this is a shame, a waste. And perhaps not entirely necessary, even though it seems oddly inevitable.

Joao Felix joined Atlético aged just 19 and having only played 26 first division matches. It should never have cost that much money, and that’s 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 from time to time he has been 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 — the his first in Spain.

When Atlético won the league in 2020-21, halfway through (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, as Atlético crashed out of Europe, he was not in the team. When they went to Portugal to play in the final stages of the Champions League in the Covid-affected 2019-20 season, he did not play.

The arrival of Luis Suarez had changed the way they played, bringing Atlético closer to the opposition area. That made Joao Felix central to the opening months of their title-winning season, a period that looked like it could lead to a change of identity, their move to someone else, someone good.

There was a moment that season when Saul and Jan Oblak were caught on camera going down on him. “When he wants to, he can change the game, man.” This was the line, and it was genuine admiration, almost awe, yet 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 quite felt right, or at least not for long enough, like he didn’t do enough to fit in and they didn’t do enough to make him fit in — everyone’s fault and no one’s.

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In Qatar, Joao Felix admitted that things are different in the national team, “the way of playing and the happiness”. To be honest, he couldn’t say anything else that he could really say, since he had put it on the spot, but he also left a hint of something that wasn’t right back in Spain that was already pretty much accepted by everyone. When Simeone was asked about Joao Felix’s performances at the World Cup, meanwhile, he replied that this was “a competition that is ideal for him: short, where the beauty is seen, where players like him fall in love.” As compliments go, it could hardly have been more backwards, the accusation that he is not committed or consistent with his team, said without needing to be said.

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

There was an element of this on Thursday when Atletico’s Twitter account posted a photo of him. “Our No. 7,” read the headline. But this is season four and few expect it to be their No. 7 much longer. fewer still seem prepared to fight for it anymore. The battle now seems to be trying to do its best.

There may not even be that much sadness when he goes, which is perhaps the saddest thing of all. On Thursday, starting after seven straight games as a sub and yet scoring for the fourth straight game, there was a glimpse of the talent, but few were really attached to it anymore. At least the goodbye, if that was it, was a good one. Some had feared a good acquittal: whistles, boos, supporters deliver a guilty verdict. However, the time of reconciliation seemed to have passed as well, no return now, just a kind of soft regret. As the fans cheered him off the pitch, there was a sense of: well, it wasn’t meant to be.

Asked if that could change things, Simeone said: “I think about 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 should what happens will happen — and it’s not up to me.”


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