My game in my words. By João Félix
João Félix uses two words a lot when describing how he likes to play football.
As he discusses his game in his words for The Athletic and EA SPORTS, the Atlético Madrid and Portugal forward keeps coming back to two ideas — fun and responsibility.
Scoring goals is a lot of fun. Fun also means dribbling past defenders, connecting with fans. Responsibilities are putting his talent in service of the team, building his career, aiming as high as he possibly can.
“I always try to have as much fun as I can, of course with responsibility,” he says, early in our hour-long chat. “I like to make other people enjoy my football. The biggest games are the most fun to play in, where I can show my ability.”
As we rewatch his career highlights, João Félix lights up when discussing some of his best goals, dribbles and biggest milestones. He is polite and interested as he discusses the influence of figures including his father, Diego Simeone, Cristiano Ronaldo, Neymar and Bruno Fernandes. He is determined and direct on the frustrations that mean at age 22, he still has plenty left to do in the game following his move to Atlético from Benfica for £113 million in 2019.
João Félix plays football to have fun and when everything clicks there are few players anywhere in the world who can match his creativity, mazy dribbling and skilful touch. But he also knows that with great talent comes great responsibility.
Once the first video rolls, João Félix recognises it immediately.
It’s April 2017 and his Benfica Under-19s team are in action in a UEFA Youth League semi-final against Atlético’s great rivals, Real Madrid.
“Yeah, yeah I remember this,” he says with a gleam in his eye. “It was a big day. With 18 minutes gone, we were already 3-0 up. We were a little surprised at that — 4-2 was a great result. I scored two goals, so it was an unbelievable day.”
There is modesty as he recalls the first goal — four minutes in, he darted behind the Madrid defence and supplied a deft flick past the goalkeeper with the outside of his right foot.
“The first goal with the backheel, if VAR existed then I was offside…” João Félix jokes. “But I don’t mind. It was a good goal.”
We move on to his first senior goal, 16 months later, when he was still just 18. Fifteen minutes after he entered the play, in his second first-team appearance, Benfica were 1-0 down at home to city rivals Sporting Lisbon…
That was until Rafa Silva floated a cross towards the back post that was met by a thumping João Félix header.
Was it a surprise that the first senior goal of a player often thought of as a silky playmaker was scored in that manner? João Félix quickly puts us straight and says he has always trained hard on headers to make him an aerial threat.
“I think I jump well, and I always practised scoring headers with my father (a PE teacher and youth coach),” he says. “He always said that, for him, the best goals were with the head. He taught me a lot, always was my support, my personal coach. He is still important now.”
“It was my first goal and to score in a derby like that was unbelievable,” he says. “The stadium was full, full, full. It was one of the most important days of my life. Even now, when I go to Lisbon, to the stadium, they always like to see me, show me support and love. I love that.”
It seems as though Félix’s destiny to become one of the world’s best players was always set in stone. He was named to EA SPORTS’ Future Stars list two years ago, and is impressed with the next generation of talent named to the FIFA 22 Future Stars list, including some familiar faces — his Atlético team-mate Matheus Cunha and Benfica’s Goncalo Ramos.
“To get my card on Future Stars was all very good and very exciting,” he says. “Since I was young, me and my brother (Hugo) always played FIFA. One of the achievements we wanted was to be part of FIFA. I am in now, and my brother will be in too, in a few years.
“I really like to play with Matheus. He is Brazilian, so he has that different touch on the ball. Our chemistry is very, very good, on and off the pitch, we fit perfectly together. He will be one of the best No 9s in world football in the next years.
“Goncalo is very good. When he gets the minutes consistently, we will see how good he is. He just needs to play his football, to learn, to listen, to improve. He needs to keep his feet on the ground, keep working, keep doing his job.”
We move forward eight months to the performance that really catapulted him onto the radars of the best clubs in Europe — his hat-trick against Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarter-finals in April 2019.
The first was from the penalty spot, and João Félix says he had no qualms about taking a penalty in a big European game at 18. At that point, he had never scored in a senior European competition but there he was, volunteering to take the spot kick ahead of far more experienced team-mates.
“I took this one because Pizzi was not on the field — he usually takes them,” João Félix explains. “When the penalty happened I just ran to the ball and grabbed it, and nobody took it off me. I decided I would take it.
“Since I was young, I have always liked to take the penalties. It is a big responsibility but I like to have that responsibility.”
Luka Jovic equalised for Frankfurt but João Félix fired Benfica back into the lead with a 20-yard piledriver. He completed his first senior hat-trick with a calm finish from inside the box and the stadium went wild.
“I remember all the goals, all the night — the hours after the game, I remember everything,” he says. “I was very excited, and I could not even sleep, I just kept reliving the goals in my head, the first, the second, the third.”
The photo below shows just how overwhelmed João Félix was after his third goal that night went in.
João Félix was still being carried on this wave through the following summer, with a £113 million move to Atlético and more star performances during pre-season, including scoring twice against a Juventus team that included his national captain Ronaldo in the International Champions Cup. Don’t believe the match reports, the goal credited to Thomas Lemar was actually his — something João Félix himself agrees with.
There was giddy excitement among Atlético fans for his La Liga debut at the Wanda Metropolitano on the opening day of the 2019-20 season. When the next clip starts to roll, João Félix knows what is coming and leans in with a big smile.
“This was the best run of my life,” he says…
“I am just thinking to get past the first defender” — which he does with a remarkably casual stepover and nutmeg.
“Then another comes… ” and he shrugs the next Getafe player off as if he wasn’t even there.
“…and then we see how it goes.” Spoiler: It goes very well.
João Félix rolls the ball with the sole of his left boot across himself, wrongfooting the two defenders, and then drives into the acres of space in the right channel…
“I was always looking to the penalty area, to see if there was a player free to pass.”
Getafe’s Bruno Gonzalez takes another swipe at João Félix, who brushes him off again and keeps his balance as he dribbles towards the box.
Gonzalez hopes it might be third time lucky but his mistimed challenge catches João Félix and Atlético are awarded a penalty.
“I think, then, Alvaro (Morata) missed the penalty, yeah?”
Yes, he did.
“I should have grabbed the ball and taken the penalty,” João Félix says with a smile. “It (the dribble) was a great start to my Atlético career. I wanted to show the Atlético fans what I was capable of.”
João Félix settled quickly into life in Madrid.
When Barcelona visited that December, veteran defender Gerard Pique got to experience João Félix’s close control and quick thinking in tight situations. With the ball pinged into his feet and Pique charging towards him, João Félix tapped it through his legs and regained possession on the other side.
“In top football, there is not too much time to think,” he says. “You need to think quickly — and do things quickly, too.
“Just in one second, I thought it (the nutmeg) was the best option.
“And yeah, it was the best option…”
The only way Pique could stop João Félix was by rugby-tackling him, which resulted in an Atlético free kick.
Was that quickness of mind and feet something he admired in players when he growing up?
“(I liked to watch) Kaka, Cristiano and Messi for all that they do,” he says. “And Neymar, too, the way he plays, the way he dribbles, the way he has fun with the ball. That was always a player I liked to watch. I would just watch games because of him. I always liked to go past defenders. It is a great way to play. When I can do it, I try it. The fans enjoy it.”
And does dribbling come naturally to him? Or does he practise it a lot?
“I am always practising, even at home, I always have a ball at my feet — including now,” he says and reaches down off-camera to touch the football on the floor.
“I always need a ball.”
After helping Atlético knock out holders Liverpool in the Champions League last-16 with a win at Anfield in March 2020, João Félix started 2020-21 in excellent form. He scored eight goals and provided three assists in the first 10 games as Atlético moved into a big lead at the top of La Liga and made a competitive start in Europe.
His sharpness in the penalty area was shown with this poacher’s effort in a Champions League group game against then-European champions Bayern Munich.
“I know that Marcos Llorente always does that cross,” he says, “so I start running.
“And the ball was perfectly there at my feet, and I just shoot.
“I can feel something, sometimes we players get a feeling of what will happen — sometimes we are right, sometimes we are not. It is natural.”
That winter, João Félix was in and out of the Atlético team, scoring just one league goal in three months, even as Simeone’s team continued to lead La Liga.
He knows what is coming when a clip featuring Villarreal begins — a late February game where he again started on the bench but came on and made a statement.
“Yeah, yeah, I remember this,” he says, “the ball comes to me and with two touches, yeah… It was natural (chuckles). There is nothing to say — I receive and I shoot.”
That was followed by a famous “Shush” celebration, which many thought was aimed at his coach Simeone.
“No, no, no,” he says when asked if it was a message to the man known as El Cholo. “It was a moment with (team-mate Renan) Lodi. He told me that I had not been scoring against anybody. So I told him to ‘Shut up’.”
That leads to an explanation of the reasons for a lot of the frustration he was feeling. The team led La Liga through the winter and spring months but his contributions to that were sporadic.
“It was a difficult season,” he says. “At the beginning, I was very good, then I got the injury and I played for six months with a broken bone in my foot. The people did not know that, they just found out after the surgery (following last summer’s European Championship). It was my choice to play this way, to try to help the team. It was difficult, yeah, but I felt part of it, part of the team.”
The ankle injury meant other attackers — Luis Suarez, Angel Correa and Yannick Carrasco — were more important as Atlético kept ahead of neighbours Real in the title race. João Félix did provide one huge moment to help them clinch the title, though. In the penultimate game, he was summoned from the bench with his team in need of something special — 1-0 down to Osasuna with more than an hour played, and Real now virtual leaders of the league.
Atlético were running out of ideas, but then João Félix’s chipped, spun pass sent his close friend Lodi in to score and suddenly they were back in charge, and they went on to seal the title the following week away to Valladolid.
𝗥𝗲𝗰𝗮𝗽 of last weekend!
Trailing Osasuna 1-0 with 81mins on the clock, @renan_lodi remained composed hitting the top corner to draw @atletienglish level 🔥 pic.twitter.com/tpMOREsNBh
— Premier Sports (@PremierSportsTV) May 20, 2021
That operation on his ankle delayed the start of his 2021-22 season, but he soon hit the ground running.
When Barcelona came to the Wanda in October, he produced what was perhaps his best performance since joining the club. He was involved in both goals, scored by Lemar and Suarez, and caused the Barcelona defence all sorts of problems with his economy of touch and movement.
For the first goal, he controls a sharp pass into his feet and, with his first touch, breaks into space.
“I thought this was the best movement to get away from Ronald Araujo,” João Félix says. “I know if I get the ball with Araujo behind me, it will be difficult to get past him. So I need to pass him with the first touch, and then the play was free, and Suarez found Lemar and he scored.”
Suarez is a player with whom João Félix definitely feels on the same wavelength.
“We have a good connection,” he says. “He knows how I play, I know how he plays. We know what is best for each of us, and we try and give the best options to each other.”
When it’s mentioned how long Suarez played with Lionel Messi for Barcelona, João Félix interrupts…
“Yeah, yeah, he always played a style that is like mine. We are in the same boat.”
His contribution to Atlético’s second goal that night was a simple, short pass in his own half into the path of Lemar, but it pulled Barcelona out of shape.
From there, Lemar and Suarez had the space to combine and make it 2-0.
After that game, Simeone gave rare praise to João Félix, saying his play had been “direct and decisive” and that he should always play like that.
“Yeah, I agree,” João Félix says when the quote is put to him. “I played a great game. I did not get any assists, but I got two pre-assists.”
When asked for specific examples of how his game has improved in two and a half seasons working under Simeone, he chooses his words carefully.
“Here (at Atlético), I learned some things that are difficult to learn at other teams,” he says. “The way we defend, we learn a lot. I think I have improved a lot in that. And also in turning with the ball, and running with the ball. That is the most important.”
This leads us neatly to João Félix’s most recent La Liga goal, a fine solo strike against Granada in December, where he spun immediately on receiving the ball, set off towards the penalty area and finished coolly from 18 yards.
That turned out to be another frustrating game for João Félix, who had another goal ruled out and also hit a post moments before Granada counter-attacked to score the winner.
When asked to explain why last year’s champions are struggling to defend their title, Félix again is careful about what he says.
“I don’t know. There are a lot of reasons, I can’t tell you one. We know what is happening, but I prefer not to talk about that.”
The next big challenge for João Félix is the upcoming Champions League last-16 clash with Manchester United, with the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano on Wednesday, February 23.
This means potentially facing his Portugal team-mates Ronaldo, Fernandes and Diogo Dalot.
“It is very good to play against your friends,” he says. “It is always fun, like we are playing in the garden. With Bruno, we exchanged messages when the draw was made. Bruno is a very, very good player. It is very easy to play with him. When he has the ball, he always chooses the best option, to give you a chance to score. That is why he gets a lot of assists. Cristiano is a role model for all of us in the national team, so he gives us a lot of good advice, and we like to listen.”
There might be another Félix hitting the headlines before too long, too.
Hugo Felix is 17 years old, a No 10 like his brother, and has featured for Benfica in this season’s UEFA Youth League. “We used to play FIFA together when we were younger. He is very good, better than me, at his age,” says João.
But, for now, João Félix is the main man.
Over the last few years, for club and country, he has been used in different positions — centre-forward, false nine, both wings — but he still sees himself primarily as a No 10.
“My best position is as the second forward,” he says. “Playing like a No 10, with a guy in front of me.”
He is firm in where he wants to play on the pitch and he knows what he wants to achieve on it, too.
“Win the Champions League, win a World Cup or a Euros with Portugal, and of course, the Ballon d’Or,” he says. “To get there I have to improve, work smart, take care of myself, take care of my body, take care of my mind, and be totally focused on me.”
(Top photos: Getty Images/Design: Sam Richardson)
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