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Euro 2020

Joao Felix, Portugal’s magic man who has everyone looking for answers

Madrid (AFP) – “After the game, everyone knew we had discovered an extraordinary player for Portugal,” Joaquim Milheiro says. “And then it was like, boom.” 

Joao Felix had just made his debut for Portugal’s under-18s against Norway in 2017 and Milheiro was in the room when the coaches began discussing one thing.

“He played 35 minutes and scored twice,” Milheiro, Portugal’s technical coordinator, tells AFP. “If you were late and saw only those 35 minutes you’d go home happy.” 

Two years later, Felix scored 15 goals as Benfica won the Primeira Liga. He became the youngest player to score a Europa League hat-trick and was 28th on the list for the Ballon d’Or. He joined Atletico Madrid for 126 million euros.

But after two seasons in Madrid, the feeling around Felix is one of frustration, that his spellbinding talent has not been applied more regularly or nurtured more carefully.

As Portugal prepare to face France on Wednesday at Euro 2020, Felix finds himself estranged from a tournament he might have hoped would be his gateway to the world’s elite.

– The potential –

Still 21, there is perhaps a tendency to expect too much too soon. “A lot of people want him to become Portugal’s new Cristiano Ronaldo and that doesn’t help him,” former Atletico striker Diego Forlan told AFP in May.

Even as a teenager, Felix possessed the kind of ability observers accepted would not be shown consistently at a young age.

“I saw two things. First, this kid had huge potential. Second, his performances were very up and down,” says Milheiro, who first saw Felix aged 15 while scouting around Porto.

“Not so much week to week but inside games, he would be good for a while and then bad, his intensity was not always there. So what do you do? You stay calm. You wait.”

Helder Cristovao, a former Portuguese international, coached Felix for Benfica B in 2016. “He will be one of the best,” Cristovao says.

“He’s in the spotlight, with all the coverage and the criticism, and at one of the biggest clubs in the world, with a demanding coach. But his development given his age is normal.”

Diego Simeone has been criticised, with many believing a more expansive coach would have seen Felix thriving by now.

Simeone has invariably picked Angel Correa ahead of him, the Argentinian starting nine of the last 10 games as Atletico won La Liga.

“We know how Simeone works,” Luis Garcia, who spent four years with Atletico, told AFP.

“Everyone has to run to the maximum. Joao’s characteristics are not really in line with that mindset. On the physical side, perhaps he has to adapt more to the league.”

– ‘Two steps ahead’ –

Those who know Felix best insist his attitude is one of his greatest strengths.

Jean-Claude Abeddou was a scout for Benfica when Felix began playing for the club’s reserves. “He was the first to arrive for training and one of the last to leave,” says Abeddou.

“It doesn’t feel like it because he seems shy but he’s someone with a lot of character. He’s a hugely hard worker.”

“Joao Felix never had a bad face,” said Milheiro. “There was never a worry he would start thinking about money or fame. He eats well, sleeps well. This wasn’t a guy about to eat a kilo of cookies.”

And there has never been any doubting his talent. “Joao Cancelo was one of the best technically I’ve coached,” says Cristovao.

“And Bernardo Silva was also very good but Joao Felix completes this trio. He had this intelligence that always set him apart, always meant he was two steps ahead.”

Pedro Maneira is the president of Os Pestinhas, Felix’s first club.

Maneira said: “Sometimes he would just dribble the whole pitch and score. We knew we weren’t going to keep him very long.”

“He did things that looked like magic.”

Frustration got to him last season with Atletico but Simeone likes a player with a hot streak. “I want the rebel,” Simeone said.

There is still time for Felix to make the fire burn more often, to adapt and convince club and country he is ready to lead.

But to unearth the real Felix, Atletico may have to adjust too, with Simeone needing to decide if it is a compromise he is ready to make.

Milheiro has no doubt it would be worth it. “If you ask me who the extraordinary young player in the world is right now, I still say Joao Felix,” he says.

“He has all the qualities to be a future winner of the Ballon d’Or. He’s that player you turn the lights on for.”

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