As Atletico Madrid get set to host Liverpool in the UEFA Champions League at Wanda Metropolitano this Tuesday on Paramount+, Joao Felix sits on the other side of my computer screen. He's relaxed, focused and more than happy to analyze his next opponent, knowing that talking about Liverpool is far easier than playing against them.
"We expect a strong team. As we all know. It's Liverpool," says Atleti's young Portuguese star, speaking in English. It's one of the many languages he speaks. "They are a great team, especially their attack, which is very good, but we are prepared for them and we will do our best to win."
"Mohamed Salah is dangerous, Sadio Mane is dangerous," he says, talking exclusively to ¡Qué Golazo! and CBS Sports. "Jota is dangerous. In the backline, they are dangerous too so it will be a difficult game."
Felix knows too well the danger of Liverpool, because in many ways he sees the Premier League side as an English parallel to Atleti. They are two hard-working, tactically all-or-nothing clubs, founded by the city and the people that made them. They are proud, blue-collar - perhaps with a chip on their shoulder - and with two managers who leave it all on the pitch, demanding the same from their team. There is an intoxicating system that both Atletico Madrid and Liverpool bring when the opponent has the ball and Felix sees it. Is it an advantage, therefore, to know an opponent so well, given the similarity in philosophy?
"I don't know if playing [similar systems] will be good for us, but we know that they are very aggressive, they press a lot," he says. "This can be good or bad for us. The pressure that they put on can maybe give us a lot of space to play, but maybe not. We just need to be prepared for both situations."
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The similarities in style are also reflections of the two teams managers. If Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp is famously heavy metal, then Simeone is punk rock, defiant and relentless. Both men are somewhat anti-establishment and Felix loves that from his manager because Cholo has added steel to his unique, natural flair.
"We learn a lot of things [from Simeone] and everyone can see the passion that he has for the game," says Felix. "It's awesome. It's different [to Fernando Santos, his Portugal national team manager]. Cholo is always involved in the game, he's always talking, always running and it's good to see."
Felix's talents were on full display in Atleti's last match, one of the biggest of the season, at home against Barcelona on October 2. Spanish football had finally welcomed fans back and Wanda Metropoolitano was alive again. Felix was fantastic, creating a triangle of mayhem with Luis Suarez and the versatile Thomas Lemar. Suarez was the man of the hour, with a goal and assist but it was Felix who started both plays to set up the goals. Simeone lost his voice that night, turning around to the home crowd imploring them to get louder. It was a great evening for Atletico Madrid, after a somewhat slow start to the season.
"It felt great. Very good," says Felix, reflecting on that night. "A feeling that we haven't had for so long. It was special, it felt good, and we needed all the supporters in the stadium, as many as possible. It was important and I felt so good to play for them."
So, can that feeling translate into this week's Champions League match?
It was only two seasons ago when Los Colchoneros knocked out the then-Champions League defending champions in extra time during the 2019-2020 Round of 16 fixture at Anfield, so Felix is looking forward to hearing from the Kop again next month.
"The passion, I think, is the same [as Atleti]," says Felix. "It's a little bit different in Anfield because the people are closer to the pitch, but the passion is the same."
Does it matter that most of Anfield will be cheering against him on November 3rd, though? "I like to play in a full stadium with passionate fans," smiles Felix. "Even if they're not my fans."
That Round of 16 game last year in March was also, of course, the last game in Europe before the world changed forever. The pandemic closed the curtains on soccer for three months, leaving a trail of empty stadiums, leaving us with only unknowns, brought by Covid-19.
Little by little, we picked ourselves up and so did Atletico Madrid in the last campaign, winning La Liga's 2020-2021 season in dramatic fashion on the final weekend, after coming back from behind and beating [and relegating] Valladolid. It was only Atletico's second league title in 25 years, but it was a trophy that stopped Real Madrid or Barcelona's domination after seven.
Felix, who came on after the hour-mark in that game, gives credit to the entire squad for the title, and of course the addition of Suarez, who scored the winner that day, minutes after Felix entered the pitch. Despite the fact that it's only been one full season, Felix says he has learned so much from the Uruguayan star, equally from Antoine Griezmann, who returned to the club this summer after leaving Barcelona. "[I have learned] a lot. This is the second year I am playing with Luis, with Antoine it's the first. I can see a lot of quality, a lot of experience and this is good for me, as a young player, to learn and work with them."
It's amazing really, to remember that despite all the achievements - from two league titles (one with Atleti, the other in Portugal with his previous team Benfica) Joao Felix is still only 21 years old.
You can't really tell. That's part of the reason why he is so well liked inside the club. By everyone, not just the squad. From the communications team to the cafeteria, this young super star is well respected and admired, because quite simply, he is a good person. Or at least he tries to be. He is known around the club to be...well, quite normal. "He is a kind, sweet guy," is the phrase you'll often hear around the club.
As always, these traits begin at home. Both his parents are teachers and that sense of educational responsibility and humility don't go away. Learning before playing was essentially the family mantra.
"It was important to me," remembers Felix. "My father and mother always told me to first do work and then they'll get me to training. So in order for them to drop me off at training, I had to get the homework done or they would not take me. First homework, then football."
This balance helped him get through tough times, including the very beginning, his Porto academy years, when the commute between the city and his hometown of Viseu was too much to deal with. In the end, he moved closer to the academy but was not getting the minutes he desired. Joao found it challenging but his parents encouraged him and helped him become more resilient. Eventually, Benfica came calling and the rest, as they say, is history. Though Felix would tell you that more history has yet to be written.
After making his first-team debut with Benfica in the 2018-2019 season at 17 years old, he also became the youngest player to score in a Lisbon derby and months later in April of the following year, he earned the nod of youngest player to score a hat trick (18) in the Europa League. By the end of that campaign, he helped Benfica win the Portuguese league title with 15 goals and seven assists in 21 starts as well as making his debut with the national team in a Nations League semi final vs. Switzerland.
It was that summer when Atletico came knocking as the Madrid club paid $142 million for his services, making him the fifth most expensive player of all time after Neymar Jr, Kylian Mbappe, Phillipe Coutinho and Ousmane Dembele. For teenagers, only Mbappe cost more.
Expectations were high when Felix arrived at Atleti, especially as his arrival was a direct response to Griezmann leaving the club for Barcelona. Felix received the No. 7 shirt, which probably didn't help as fans probably expected immediate success, but that's not how it works in this game, especially with someone so young. Headlines calling him the "next Cristiano Ronaldo" also didn't aid the cause, as fans and media pundits alike were waiting for this wunderkind to create fireworks from the get-go. As a matter of fact, it took time.
Part of it is the system. An attacking player in a Simeone team is given more responsibilities than most, and it's not just the pressing that is required. Cholo doesn't want his offensive weapons to be a nuisance against opposing defenders. He wants them to be a nightmare. This means, therefore, that you have to be prepared to think like a defender, and that's something that Felix took time to work on, a task made doubly hard by the fact that moving to Atleti in La Iga meant a step up in league quality from his previous home in Portugal. But it was also about the specific role Felix played. In the first season, he was given more of a free role, which in fact didn't help his cause as Simeone hadn't figured out yet that what Felix needed was structure.
Injuries also took their toll and he went through four in his debut season. But in 2020-2021, things became clearer. Thanks to Suarez's arrival and a better understanding of the game played by Simeone, Felix's role became more disciplined, placing a bigger focus on the left hand side. This meant he became more comfortable, and therefore showed more confidence. He had back-to-back braces for the first time in his career and won the league's Player of the Month award in November. But amazingly, he was still not at 100%, as he played through pain from January in order to help Atleti win the title.
Finally, this past summer, after the European Championships with Portugal, Felix had ankle surgery and returned to full training in September. So really, if you think about it, in his third season, Felix is just getting started and that's a scary thought for the rest of the league.
The goal now is to not just defend the league title but also advance further in the Champions League. The problem is that it's not just Liverpool that Atletico Madrid have to worry about. Group B is the Group of Death as Porto and AC Milan also look to go far in the competition. It's a group of European excellence, where the opponents have a combined tally of 15 Champions League trophies. Atletico Madrid is the only club in the group without one.
"We all want that. Everyone wants it. Everyone in the club," says Felix. "But we just think match by match, that's all. The next game is Liverpool, so we are working on that. Then Liverpool again, and that's it. Match by match."
We finish the chat by talking about his footballing heroes. Rui Costa, first. Felix watches hundreds of tapes of the former Benfica, Fiorentina and AC Milan star. Then there's the other Milan star: Kaka. He laughs when I bring up this tweet:
It’s Kaka’s birthday today so here comes my reminder that joao felix is actually kaka from the past who’s joao felix from the future and just like Netflix’s dark this is really just about two people from different time dimensions stuck in the present pic.twitter.com/JEveW2p5jY— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) April 22, 2021
""I grew up seeing him play," says Felix, acknowledging the resemblance. "He was my first idol. I liked the way that he played. So he's an idol for me."
He also tells me that Portugal's dressing room is always funnier when Bernardo Silva enters the room, ""Bernardo is very funny. Just looking at him is funny. He is just a funny guy," and how playing with Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo is not just joyful to him, it's an education.
"It's always good playing with the best and the best players, so playing in Portugal with the national team, it's very important for a young player," says Felix. "Because you learn a lot, and improve a lot, during training and playing with them."
That's the thing about Joao Felix. To him, playing this game is similar to attending a prestigious University on a full scholarship. He has been given this unique gift, and thanks to the sacrifices made by his hard work and the efforts of his family, this 21-year-old is going to make the most of it.
At Atletico Madrid he has the best classmates and most importantly, a professor that will push him until he knows his limits. It's a good time to be a student of the game and there's a sense that at 21, there is so much more to come.
I can't wait to see Joao Felix graduate.