Joao Felix's Atletico Madrid legacy: The right player at the wrong place at the wrong time

What options does Joao Felix have in the January transfer window? (1:20)

Julien Laurens explains the potential transfer options that could see Joao Felix leave Atletico Madrid. (1:20)

If this was the last time Joao Felix walked off the pitch at the Metropolitano, at least he did so a starter, a goal scorer, a man of the match and applauded all the way. That wasn't always the case, and getting a reaction like this wasn't always the case either. Forty-nine days later, LaLiga was back; for the Portugal international, it was natural to wonder if it might be for one night only, and there had been no certainty that after 3½ years here he would get a decent send-off, should it turn out to be one. Nor is there any certainty that a night like this, the kind of night he is supposed to have, will change anything either.

"What has to happen will happen," Atletico Madrid coach Diego Simeone said.

Sometimes that's not even true -- too often what has to happen is not what happens at all -- but what has to happen, it now seems, is for the former Benfica prodigy to leave Spain and head to, well, almost anywhere that will have him. Anywhere but here. That's what Atletico's owner and CEO says, at least, and the fact he said so makes it all the more likely. On Dec. 6, what was already an open secret became no secret at all: as the second phase of the World Cup was starting up in Qatar, Miguel Angel Gil Marin was there too, publicly admitting that if there is a chance for Joao Felix to leave then Atletico should "at least analyse it."

At least.

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"Joao Felix is the biggest 'bet' this club has made in its history," Gil Marin said. "Personally, I think he has world-class talent, as a player and a person, but it's true that for reasons that it's not worth getting into now, the relationship between the coach and him, the minutes he has played and his motivation right now make us think that the reasonable thing to do is that if a good option appears for him and for the club we should at least analyse it. Personally, I would love him to continue but I think that right now the player has other ideas."

And there it was. In a line, Gil Marin had publicly put Joao Felix on the market and the blame -- how handy -- on the player and the manager rather than any of the other elements at play, or those involved in him signing for €126 million in 2019, or his difficulties justifying that fee ever since. In fact, not only had Gil Marin put Joao Felix on the market, you couldn't help wondering if he might have already agreed a deal. Otherwise, it didn't seem like the most sensible negotiating tactic, likely to limit Joao Felix's value and weaken Atletico's bargaining position.

The reality is that so far Atletico say they have not had an actual bid for him. Although that's not the dramatic statement it might sound like: it may well be three weeks since Gil Marin's comments, but it's not even January yet, the market hasn't even opened. But still, they have even intimated that they would be open to a loan offer, at least in the short term. And yes, take a step back, and that is a loan deal for a player whose transfer fee was more -- almost two times more -- than anyone else in their entire history. Only two players have ever commanded higher fees, and they're both at Paris Saint-Germain.

Paying a €126m transfer fee for a teenager was always a high price, but built into the deal was the plan to sell on, once his value had grown, a promise made by Jorge Mendes, the agent with whom Atletico are very close. At that price and that age, it seemed risky then; it simply isn't the case now. Which means that just as Atletico are openly admitting that they would like to get rid of the deal and that Joao Felix would like to get out, everyone is forced to face the prospect that it's not even possible. And having come this far, that seems like an even worse prospect than bidding farewell. (Or so they think: it is tempting to wonder if actually getting stuck might be the best thing that could happen to them.)

His is a departure that would be good for everyone, which is how bad it has gotten. A player who doesn't like his coach, a coach who doesn't seem to much like his player, a club that would rather cut their losses, an agent who would quite like to increase his profit, if not quite the way he should, and fans wondering what it was all for and whether they like him or not, whether they should lament him leaving.

They're left with a sense of ... not loss exactly, more just, well, kind of not much. That awkward feeling of four slightly empty years, of nothing really achieved, no real mark left. A feeling that, actually, may not be entirely fair but is inescapable. What might have been -- what still might be for some other club -- but never really was. If they are to remember Joao Felix, it would be nice to remember him like on Thursday night when he scored a goal, played superbly, did things others just can't do and departed exhausted having given everything, the place applauding him as he went.

The fact that he played this way made it better and also made it worse. Performances like this could happen, they knew, but didn't happen often enough. Expectation conditioned everything, which it always does. The context does as well, which widens the culpability, the divide over where responsibility lies. It is hard to avoid the feeling that maybe, just maybe, Joao Felix was the right player in the wrong place at the wrong time, to avoid clinging to the hope that maybe, just maybe, it could one day be the right place. It is hard, too, to avoid wondering if he was actually that good.

Now, many look at him and think the best-case scenario for Atletico is based not so much on him but on how much money they can generate from his transfer and who they can get to replace him. That it has come to this feels like a pity, a waste. And perhaps not entirely necessary, even as it feels oddly inevitable, too.

Joao Felix joined Atletico aged just 19 and having played only 26 first-division games. He should never have cost that much money, and this is the original sin. But there was clearly something special there: There were 15 goals in that spell, plus nine assists, plus three goals and an assist in the Europa League. He was different, exciting, talented. And at times he has been in Spain. His stats are actually pretty good: four goals and four assists in LaLiga so far this season, eight goals and four assists last season, seven goals and six assists the season before, six goals and one assist the season before -- his first in Spain.

When Atletico won the league in 2020-21, by the halfway stage (or at least around November, when they were still unbeaten) there was an argument to suggest that he might have been the best player in Spain. He began this season with three assists in a single game. And yet, as Atletico crashed out of Europe, he wasn't on the team. When they went to Portugal to play the final stages of the Champions League in the Covid-affected 2019-20 season, he didn't play.

Luis Suarez's arrival had shifted the way they played, taking Atletico closer to the opposition's area. That made Joao Felix a central piece in the early months of their title-winning season, a period when it seemed that he could lead a shift in identity, their move towards someone else, someone good.

There was a moment that season when Saul and Jan Oblak were caught on camera swooning over him. "When he wants to, he can change the game, man." That was the line and it was genuine admiration, almost awe, yet it came with a kind of reproach: when he wants to. That was two years ago now, and maybe that was it in a nutshell, even then, even when all was well. Somehow it never felt quite right, or at least not for long enough, like he didn't do enough to fit and they didn't do enough to make him fit -- everyone's fault and no one's.

In Qatar, Joao Felix admitted that things feel different in the national team, "the way of playing and the happiness." In fairness, there was little else he could say really, once put on the spot, but it also left a hint of something not right back in Spain that had already pretty much been accepted by everyone. When Simeone was asked about Joao Felix's World Cup performances, meanwhile, he replied that this was "a competition that is ideal for him: short, where beauty is seen, where players like him enamour." As compliments go, it could hardly have been more backhanded, the accusation that he is not committed or consistent with his club, said without needing to be said.

Even now it is easy enough to think: what if Simeone moves on? Maybe then Joao Felix can star? There's a part of you that thinks: if no one comes in for him, maybe that's the catalyst for the explosion? That part of you that knows he's still only 23.

There was an element of that on Thursday when Atletico's Twitter account posted a photo of him. "Our No. 7," the heading read. But this is a fourth season and few expect him to be their No. 7 much longer; fewer still seem prepared to fight for it anymore. The battle now appears to be trying to make the best of it.

There may not even be that much sadness when he goes, which is perhaps the saddest thing of all. On Thursday, starting the match after seven successive games as a sub and yet also scoring for the fourth game in a row, there was a glimpse of the talent yet few really clung to it anymore. At least the goodbye, if that is what it was, was a good one. Some had feared a good riddance instead: whistles, boos, the supporters delivering a guilty verdict. Yet the time for reconciliation seemed to have passed too, no return now, just a kind of gentle regret. As the fans applauded him from the pitch, there was a sense of: well, it wasn't to be.

Asked if this might change things, Simeone said: "I think of the players who are here with me. I give everything and push them until the last minute. I try to do what is best for the club. And then what has to happen will happen -- and that doesn't depend on me."