You’ve got your El Greco, your Velázquez, your Goya, and your João Félix. Well, you did have: turns out, this artist wasn’t in the right place and has gone now, on loan in London.
The day Atlético Madrid announced his arrival, they did so with a video shot at the Prado museum, then celebrating its 200th birthday. In it, the Portugal forward strolls among some of the finest paintings on earth. He contemplates the Las Meninas, Titian’s Adam and Eve, and eventually turns to the camera, the reveal performed before Goya’s Dance on the Banks of the Manzanares, a nod to their old Vicente Calderón home alongside the river, by then half-demolished, a motorway running through the middle. It doesn’t take much to see the metaphor and it’s not necessary either. Instead, it is written. “Pure talent,” they call him.
It was not enough, although some in Madrid, if increasingly few, cling to it still. Félix’s departure for Chelsea is initially a six-month stay, another maybe left lingering, room for a little hope. That he has gone on loan with no option to buy, let alone an obligation, speaks of uncertainty as well as urgency. The forward had decided that he couldn’t go on like this, asking for a way out. Atlético’s CEO, Miguel Ángel Gil Marín, publicly said it was better he left. A solution needed to be found for now. Longer term, no one knows what the solution is – for the player as well as his club – and no one is offering one either. Almost four years on, that talent remains unfulfilled, fleeting, the art too rarely seen.
At one point in that video, Félix stands before Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, in which three panels depict Eden, the garden itself, and finally hell. Watching now, it doesn’t take much to see that metaphor either. That was 2019 and he arrived at Atlético for a record €126m fee, almost twice as much as any other player, ever. He had come to make history, they said. This week, he slipped out of the country, having only really done so with the price. His last appearance ended with him being substituted. As he went there were a few tepid whistles, but not much else. This is just something that happens. He has completed 90 league minutes only once this season.
When he arrived, Félix said that he wanted to be remembered; now that he has left, there is not that much reason to do so. Which is not to say that he was awful, not at all, or that he has shouldered all the blame. There are plenty who point the finger at Diego Simeone, the coach whose role it was to nurture his talent, and there are other factors at play which condition everything. It is also why the inevitable question, the simplest inquiry of all, does not have an easy answer. Will Felix be good at Chelsea? Definitely, maybe. He might be. He might not be. It is tempting, in fact, to simplify the question still further: is João Félix really good?
Of course he is, yet it is natural that the doubt remains. And if the talent is there, then what of the temperament? There’s a moment caught on camera during a Champions League meeting with Salzburg in 2020 which is eloquent. Saul Ñíguez and Jan Oblak are coming down the tunnel at half-time when the former says of Félix: “What a bastard that guy is. When he wants to he can change the game, man. Get the ball, get up there, enjoy yourself”. Oblak’s reply says little but says it all: “Madre mia. He’s so good, madre.”
In that eulogy there is recrimination too: when he wants to hangs heavy. It might also be a little too easy, just as simply citing Simeone is too easy. It is not one or the other: there are two men here. In fact there are considerably more than two, the elements that have conditioned everything not all of their making – even if in early December, Gil Marín publicly put Félix on the market and the responsibility squarely on player and coach.
“João Félix is the biggest ‘bet’ this club has made in its history,” the CEO said. “He has world-class talent but it’s true that ... the relationship between the coach and him, the minutes he has played and his motivation right now make us think the reasonable thing to do is [study offers for him]. Personally, I would love him to continue but I think that right now the player has other ideas.”
The player’s idea was to get out, break free, try something else. And if he has to come back again, maybe things will be different – the possibility that Simeone will no longer be there is never far from many people’s minds. There was an inevitability about this, Félix’s departure not even seeming that sad, just something that had to happen, which in itself is quite sad. This is good for everyone, which is how bad it has got. And yet it wasn’t bad as such. He doesn’t go as a failure, not exactly, even if his signing certainly is one.
A fee of €126m, for a 19-year-old who had played only one top-flight season changes everything, the context of it all. Expectation gets bigger, pressure too; the patience gets smaller. Jorge Mendes, Félix’s agent, had promised Atlético his value would increase; instead he leaves on loan, the only option they had. There was interest – how could there not be? – but unease too. There is something there, everyone knows, and the stats say so too: 131 games, 34 goals, 16 assists is not a bad return, but not a world-record return.
In no season did Félix’s league figures for goals or assists hit double figures, not the numbers of a player who, as they said then, had come to be the standard bearer of a new generation, a star for a generation. And so back it goes to that original sin, the signing that shapes everyone’s destiny, and their behaviour, the context in which judgment is made. When it’s asked if he is that good, it is the signing which sets the level. And that hasn’t been seen often.
Simeone did, despite the assumptions to the contrary, use Félix, if not always in the position, style, or as often as he would like. Of the 134 games he has been available for, the 23-year-old has played 131; 84 as a starter. Simeone wasn’t going to wait; it is not what he does. But the Portuguese has had opportunities, if not continuity, and the latter was not always down to the coach: on the left, the right, the middle, although he often felt too far from goal. There was an inescapable sense that somehow it never quite happened, and that when it started to, something would get in the way. He has missed 35 games through injury, illness or suspension.
In the first half of the season in which Atlético won the league, Félix was pushed up alongside Luis Suárez, whose arrival changed the structure of the team, and was arguably the best player in Spain, but then he suffered an ankle injury. By the end of the season you could name four or five players at Atlético alone who had ultimately been more significant. Last spring, he played superbly, signs of consistency appearing, and he started this season with three assists at Getafe, having closed last season strongly. That too has gone; now so has he, for six months at least.
“He’s doing everything we wanted from him, adding talent and work. He will keep getting angry with me but with time he’ll appreciate it,” Simeone said last spring, a little optimistically and maybe a little pointedly too. “It’s the best moment of his career,” Simeone said at the start of this season, convinced, again, that the forward could finally be that central piece. “He has talent, he sees more than the others, and hopefully he can maintain this. You can’t force it, it has to come naturally and he has worked for this.”
But after the Madrid derby, Félix disappeared from the team, unfairly singled out, he felt. When he returned he scored in five games running up until this weekend, when he was replaced early. By then his mind was made. In the autumn, when his minutes were few and his anger growing, when there had been public displays of the breakdown – a bib thrown down, a goal celebrated with a finger to his lips – the conclusion was becoming clear: the artist needed an escape.
“Everything he does badly is because I’m doing even worse,” Simeone said, a hint of irony in his words. “All the frustration he feels tells you that I haven’t been able to give him what he needs to show the talent he has.”