Photo by AP Images —Manu Fernandez
- Joao Felix, 19, become the fourth most expensive player of all time when he joined Atletico Madrid from Benfica this summer in a deal worth $137 million.
- Felix made his first team debut at Benfica less than a year ago, but quickly established himself as one of Europe’s hottest young talents — scoring 20 goals in all competitions for the Portuguese champion last season.
- Pressure is on Felix to fill the boots of Cristiano Ronaldo for the Portugal national team, but the youngster told Goal: "Cristiano is Cristiano and I want to be myself."
- He is expected to make his La Liga debut Sunday when Atletico welcomes Getafe to the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
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Joao Felix was on the verge of leaving SL Benfica to join West Ham United in 2018. But within one year, he became the fourth most expensive footballer of all time when he signed a $137.5 million deal with the UEFA Champions League contender Atletico Madrid.
In the space of those 12 months Felix went from a teenager who had yet to make his first team debut, to a young man with the world at his feet, and its weight on his shoulders.
And it was all because a star had been born
After plying his trade with Benfica’s B team throughout the 2017-2018 season, Felix was handed his first team debut on the second day of the 2018-2019 season by then-manager Rui Vitoria.
Felix, 18 at the time, came on as a late substitute in a 2-0 win against Boavista, and did enough to earn himself another call-up to the first team the following week, this time against bitter rival Sporting Lisbon.
Felix entered the Estádio Sport Lisboa field as a 71st-minute sub, but after scoring the equalizer in a 1-1 draw with just four minutes left to play, he left it a Benfica hero. His brilliant headed goal also saw him become the youngest ever scorer in the Lisbon derby.
Watch it here:
"I shivered," Felix told Benfica’s official website after the match. "I’ve been working for this, to play. I have to thank them for the chance they have given me."
He added: "I want to keep doing things well and to have more chances like these."
Felix’s words became a self-fulfilling prophecy because, through the rest of the campaign, Felix became Benfica’s star player, scoring 20 goals and providing 11 assists as Benfica won the Primeira Liga for the 37th time in it’s history, flourishing under new boss Bruno Lage’s tutelage.
His domestic efforts led to a call up to the Portugal national team for the first time in March, for whom he soon made his debut during the UEFA Nations League semifinal victory over Switzerland, a tournament Portugal would go on to win by beating the Netherlands 1-0 in the final.
A new Ronaldo
The most regular comparison for Felix however, is to Cristiano Ronaldo.
Around 6-foot in height, both forwards are right-footed who play for Portugal. The parallels between the pair are obvious, but there is more to it than size, stature, and style of play.
Photo by Reuters — Rafael Marchante
Ronaldo has been the shining light for a relatively successful Portugal side over the last 15 years.
The Juventus attacker led his country to the final of the UEFA European Championship in 2004, losing to Greece, and did not win a major title until 2016, when it finally lifted the trophy it missed out on 12 years prior.
Success in the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019 followed.
Portuguese soccer is seemingly on a hot streak and while losing Ronaldo will be a loss, it is Felix who is expected to emulate his ageing countryman and help march the team into a new era.
But with expectations heavy on his shoulders, Felix says he is ready to rise to the challenge and write his own chapter of Portuguese sporting history.
"Several Portuguese players have played here; big players that were important for Portuguese football. I want to do as well or even better than them," he said upon signing.
Speaking on the Ronaldo comparisons, he added: "Cristiano is the best in the world. When we were in the Portugal squad, he always talked a lot about Madrid and said he liked it a lot. But I’m here to do my own story and to be remembered as Joao Felix. They are good comparisons, but Cristiano is Cristiano and I want to be myself."
Atletico is a conveyor belt of gilt-edged goalscoring talent
If Felix is to indeed live up to his own lofty ambitions, he couldn’t be at a better club.
Whether they come from Atletico’s famous academy system, like club hero Fernando Torres and Real Madrid legend Raul, or are brought in from elsewhere and nurtured like Sergio Aguero, Radamel Falcao, and Diego Costa — the La Liga giant has developed a reputation for producing some of the world’s finest strikers in the modern era.
Atletico has long been a conveyor belt of gilt-edged goalscoring talent, as Christian Vieri, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, and Antoine Griezmann have graced its soccer fields at some point in their respective careers. And while the club has bought and sold many elite players, it has somehow always managed to unearth the next big thing.
And Felix is planning to be the next big thing.
"I saw the strikers that Atletico had and they were great players, great strikers," Felix told ESPN last month. "I want to be one more and this is why I choose to come here."
Photo by AP Images — Kim Klement
Felix is now playing for a great coach in Diego Simeone, who has been planning how to optimize his record signing so he can wreak havoc in front of opposition defenders from the start of the season.
"I see him playing with other players up front who can give him opportunities to do damage with his vision of the game," said the Argentine boss, according to AP. "When you have his talent and his desire to improve, you can play anywhere."
Felix already proved he can play the role Simeone envisages for him during Atleti’s pre-season campaign.
The teenager impressed against club rival Real Madrid, scoring one and setting up another in a 7-3 drubbing of Zinedine Zidane’s side. He shined just as bright against Juventus a fortnight later, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win.
That performance against Juventus seemed more significant than the Madrid showing, as Felix outshone Cristiano Ronaldo — the man he’s supposed to take the crown of Portuguese soccer from — at the Friends Arena in Sweden.
While the game wasn’t quite a coronation of Portugal’s youngest prince however, it may just have been the start of Felix’s ascension to the palace of the Portuguese Kings.
And you can see more of him when he makes his La Liga debut, potentially on Sunday when Atletico takes on Getafe at the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium.
It it is anything like his Benfica debut, it will not be long before he is headline news once again.
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