Joao Felix, unwanted by Atletico and Chelsea, faces anxious career limbo


Portugal international Joao Felix, brother of Hugo Félix, before the UEFA European Under-19 Championship Finals 2022/23 group A match between Poland and Portugal at the Tony Bezzina Stadium on July 3, 2023 in Paola, Malta.

First they took away his favourite jersey. Then he angrily cast off his training bib. The rupture of the relationship between Joao Felix and Atletico Madrid – the club who not so long ago made him the costliest player in their history – is being vividly enacted through garments and gestures. Soon enough, there will be frosty words.

The Portuguese playmaker arrived at pre-season training with Atletico this week making clear his intention to be somewhere else as soon as possible.

It will not be West London, where he spent most of 2023 on loan at Chelsea, part of a fleet of young new year recruits at Stamford Bridge. He was the superstar among them but conspicuous because the deal that took him there was only as a loanee, on a costly six-month deal.

Joao Felix, 23, thought it would be a stepping stone to something more permanent. Almost immediately, the plan hit a snag. In the 58th minute of an otherwise promising first outing in the Premier League, a derby at Fulham, he received the first direct red card of his senior career.

That looked like an unfortunate footnote at the time, evidence of a footballer pushing too hard, too aggressively at the beginning of his audition. But once his loan was coming to an end and Chelsea had sacked a second manager of a disastrous season, there were strong hints that Joao Felix was not the right fit, and not even applying himself vigorously enough.

“He has to have the work ethic, the team nature about him,” said Frank Lampard, the caretaker who oversaw the limp end of Chelsea’s chaotic campaign, explaining why he tended to put Joao Felix on the substitutes’ bench as often as in the starting XI.

Back at Atletico, Chelsea having made it clear they would not be extending their interest in the player under new manager Mauricio Pochettino, Joao Felix has endured further snubs.

His number seven shirt, the one he chose and was presented with at a lavish unveiling – the show included a segment at Madrid’s Prado museum – following his €126m signing from Benfica in 2019, has been reassigned to Antoine Griezmann.

Some of his practice sessions this week have had him marginalised, training among youth-team players. Finishing one of his drills on Tuesday, he took off his training bib and hurled it on to the turf in full sight of television cameras.

Signs of discord between the former prodigy and Atletico are not new. The loan to Chelsea marked a turning point in the breakdown of the relationship between Joao Felix and Diego Simeone, the long-serving Atletico coach.

He had been left out of the starting line-up as often as he was in it through the first half of last season at Atletico. Once he was in London, he made pointed remarks about Atletico’s trademark style under Simeone, with its emphasis on counter-attack and a willingness to concede possession to opponents.

The artist who had been unveiled at the Prado, Spain’s treasury of great paintings, told the newspaper as he had warmed to Chelsea’s then manager Graham Potter’s desire to “keep the ball, control the play, and attack”.

He added that Simeone preferred “endurance on the pitch, soaking up pressure. It’s different from other coaches”.

Those comments, made in February, now carry an awkward echo. Simeone, into his 12th year coaching Atletico, would enjoy a far better 2023 than Potter, who was sacked in April, or Lampard. As Chelsea plummeted towards the bottom half of the Premier League table, a resurgent Atletico launched a run of nine wins out of 10 games, finishing a comfortable third in the final La Liga table.

For Joao Felix, there would be no fresh start in England, no compelling numbers to persuade Chelsea they should prolong his stay. He played 20 times for Chelsea in the second half of the season, scored four goals and contributed no assists. He had played 20 games for his parent club in the opening months of 2022/23, scored five times and made three assists.

All of which leaves him in an anxious limbo, at an age where he should be peaking, looking forward to a leading role for Portugal in next summer’s European Championship. He has four years left on his Atletico contract, and the club, having paid so much to acquire him four summers ago, will not accept offers that show a significant loss on that investment.

Another loan is far more plausible than a big-fee sale. Benfica have reached out. Paris Saint-Germain may consider an approach if some of their other summer targets prove unattainable.

In the meantime, under a hot Spanish sun, Joao Felix, once the most valued teenager in football, embarks on a gruelling pre-season at a club he wants to leave and under a coach who tends to stick around.

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