João Félix Is in a Hurry. So Is Everyone Else.

João Félix did not have to do anything special to make people believe. There was no light-bulb moment that convinced his coaches at Benfica that he was destined for greatness, no single heroic performance that marked him for superstardom. Even as a teenager — braces clamped to his teeth, hair swept forward over his eyes, shoulders slight — Félix was a love-at-first-sight sort of player.

There was nothing brash about his talent. “He is not a dribbling guy,” said Nuno Gomes, who was working at Seixal, Benfica’s academy just outside Lisbon, when Félix arrived as a 15-year-old. But there did not need to be. His brilliance shone in the little things, the simple things.

Gomes fell for his vision, his perception and, in particular, his first touch: the way he seemed to know what he was going to do before he received the ball. “He thinks faster than the others,” he said.

João Tralhão, a coach who worked with Félix during his rise through the academy, saw it in the way he approached training sessions. “That’s what is most important at that age,” Tralhão said. “Training, not competition. It is a good indicator for a coach of how far a player will go.” What stood out, to Tralhão, was that Félix had the air of a perfectionist, even in the most basic exercises.

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José Boto was Benfica’s chief scout at the time. He worked with the senior team, but he had been told by his colleagues at the academy about this player he had to come see. “They had no doubts about him,” he remembered. He would go to academy games, regularly, to keep an eye on him. He quickly reached the same conclusion. “He was different from the others,” he said.

In that sense, Félix’s origin story tracks along the same lines as that of every other great in waiting. His talent stood out from an early age. Those around him knew that he was destined to make it. There was even, as is traditional, a hardship to be overcome: in his case, the fact that Félix found himself at Benfica only because he had left F.C. Porto’s academy at age 15.

ImageAt age 19, Félix is already a fixture at Atlético, which expects him to be critical to its Liga and Champions League hopes.
CreditJustin Lane/EPA, via Shutterstock

These are the common tropes of all of these stories. They are not told, necessarily, because of the benefits of hindsight — there is no reason not to believe Tralhão and Gomes and Boto all genuinely believed Félix would be a star at the time — but by a desire, perhaps, to find some sort of coherence in the sometimes chaotic process of unearthing the next transcendent soccer talent. They highlight our desire to shape a narrative, to build a story, to believe in the inevitability of destiny.

And yet in one crucial way Félix’s story is different. There is one element that has caught even those who know him by surprise. Barely four years since his departure from Porto and his arrival at Benfica, Félix, 19, is a sensation in the truest possible sense, a player whose performances provided the spark — in his first full senior season — to lift Benfica to the Portuguese championship last spring. His reward was a contract containing a buyout clause so large that his teammates nicknamed him the “€120 million boy.”

When Cristiano Ronaldo came to watch Félix and Benfica play Sporting in the Lisbon derby, a former Benfica executive joked that “Portugal’s best player was in the stadium, and it was nice of Ronaldo to come and see him.” At one point this summer, Félix featured on the front page of the Portuguese tabloid Correio da Manhã eight days in a row.

It was in the same summer that he made his international debut and that Atlético Madrid made him the most expensive Portuguese player in history, his $138 million price tag more than Real Madrid paid Manchester United for Ronaldo in 2009 and more than Juventus paid Real Madrid for Ronaldo last year.

CreditPatricia De Melo Moreira/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Félix now ranks as one of European soccer’s most dazzling young prospects, earmarked as the standard-bearer of a new generation. More immediately, he is the cornerstone of Diego Simeone’s rejuvenation project at Atlético, in which he is tasked with ending a five-year wait for a Spanish title and a much longer yearning for a Champions League crown. Atlético’s campaign starts on Wednesday in Turin, against Juventus. It is a fitting appointment: Ronaldo against Félix, Portugal’s past and present against its future, the king against the heir.

The speed with which the latter has traveled from there to here is eye-opening. As recently as last summer, Boto — whose record as a talent spotter includes bringing the likes of Luka Jovic and Axel Witsel to Lisbon — would not have believed Félix would have risen to prominence so quickly.

“We had a coach who put more emphasis on physical attributes,” he said. “You have to have the trust of a coach.” That only changed, for Félix, in January. Though he made his debut for Benfica a year ago, it was only after Bruno Lage arrived as coach midway through the season that he really started to flourish.

Nine months later, he is a superstar, one so young that he is expected to carry one of the world’s grandest clubs in two of its biggest competitions, at the same time as his parents take six-month shifts living with him in Madrid.

That is what is different about Félix’s story: not the material, but the context. Previously, he might have been given more time to develop in the relatively shallow waters of Portugal, leaving after a couple of seasons as a first-team regular.

Gomes, for example, a former Benfica striker who was something of a prodigy himself, only left for Italy at age 24. Now, though, the country’s soccer economy has shifted.

CreditPedro Nunes/Reuters

“Clubs have found a business model based on their academies, and coaches are more inclined to play young players,” he said. There is no need to wait for them to prove themselves on loan, or to ease them into the first team slowly. “The mentality is to look for talent in the academies,” Gomes said.

Europe’s apex predators have changed, too. In 2016, when the last sensation to emerge from the Benfica academy — midfielder Renato Sanches — departed for Bayern Munich, it was after a full season, and a successful run for Portugal in the European Championship. Félix has not even had that. He did not want to wait, nor did Atlético. Simeone has put him straight in the team. Even Ronaldo, in his first year at Manchester United, was eased into action. Now, there is simply no time to waste.

Those who know Félix are not worried. They believe he can cope. “The clubs prepare the players better now,” Gomes said. Tralhão, for his part, said he did not believe there was such a thing as “too soon.” “It is only too soon if you are not ready,” he said. As far as they can tell, Félix is ready.

Tralhão saw his former student briefly when the Portugal squad gathered in Lisbon this month. “He has had a lot of experiences since I first met him, he has earned a lot more money, but he is the same funny, humble boy I remember,” he said. Every year at Benfica, Félix played ahead of himself: in an older age group, for the reserves, for the first team. There is no reason Atlético should be any different, he said. Félix has always been on the fast track. The acceleration should not worry him.

Tariq Panja contributed reporting.

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Source: NYT

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