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What The Hell Is Going On With João Félix?

4:08 PM EDT on August 23, 2023

Atlético Madrid forward João Félix, looking perplexed or perhaps disgusted from the bench.
David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images

Atlético Madrid forward João Félix has not played yet this season. He stayed behind this past weekend when the team traveled to Seville to face Real Betis; the weekend before, he was an unused substitute at home against Granada. He missed all four of Atleti's preseason friendlies. He last played in a Portugal national team Euro qualifier against Bosnia and Herzegovina, back on June 17. When he'll play next is anybody's guess. Where, also.

Publicly, the club has attributed at least some of these absences to injury, a goofy and unnecessary bit of theater, since everybody involved or watching knows the real reason: Félix's relationship with the club, and with manager Diego Simeone in particular, is broken, very probably beyond repair. That relationship almost certainly was already in ruin before the 23-year-old Félix told the soccer journalist Fabrizio Romano, back on July 18, that he wanted to play for Barcelona, that the Catalan club had "always been [his] first choice." Probably it was already in ruin by the time Atleti loaned Félix to Chelsea during last January's transfer window. Probably that's the reason he shared his Barça-lust with Romano in the first place: He's unhappy in Madrid, and wants out, and is willing to sprinkle a little motivation around to get it done. But in any case, it's for sure rubble right now.

To understand how things got to this point, the first thing to know is that João Félix is good as hell.

That's how Félix wound up with Atleti in the first place: The club paid its highest-ever transfer fee, €127 million, to buy him off Benfica back in 2019, when he was one of the most exciting teenagers in the world and the only question was which huge club would have him. It was a somewhat weird move even at the time, and it's been an awkward stylistic fit ever since. João is a stylish, daring, creative player, a second striker by nature, whose skills and disposition call for the freedom to be aggressive around the box and take risks and do cool shit; Atlético under Simeone is a relentlessly conservative side that wants to funnel the ball to one dedicated finisher inside the box and keep everybody else at home to counter-press. The only player upon whom Simeone has bestowed significant attacking freedom is Antoine Griezmann, who earned it by constantly running his legs off in defense. Félix has never demonstrated a similar out-of-possession commitment.

The Félix-Simeone pairing hasn't always been bad, though even at its best it's been fraught and uncomfortable, with Simeone's trust never seeming too durable for João's next modest dip in form to shatter it. Atleti supporters named Félix the team's player of the year after the 2021-22 season (a campaign in which he lost his starting role in the first week of November and didn't get it back until mid-January) and he began the 2022-23 season as a starter, but by October he'd been benched; he reportedly requested a transfer not long after an Oct. 10 Champions League match in which Simeone got him up to warm-up for entry three different times but then never put him into the game. By the time of his January loan to Chelsea, it was with the much-reported understanding that both he and the club wanted to sever their relationship.

The virtually explicit hope for the half-season loan spell (on both his and the club's part) was that Félix might rehabilitate his reputation and transfer value somewhat ahead of this summer, so that Atleti could sell him. The first part of that didn't quite come off: Félix wasn't horrible for Chelsea, but neither did he move the needle much at all. If anything his having participated in Chelsea's worst and most embarrassing season since before he was born might have done him slightly more harm than good, if any of the stink rubbed off.

That doesn't change the fundamentals of the situation, though: João Félix wants to leave Atlético Madrid, and Atlético Madrid certainly would like for him to leave. That's where things get ... OK, more complicated. They were already complicated!

Let's do some Accounting for Dummies. When Atlético bought Félix in 2019, it signed him to a contract through the summer of 2027. The way La Liga's accounting rules work, Félix's gigantic transfer fee amortizes evenly over the life of that contract, at something in the neighborhood of €15m per season—unless he leaves the club, in which case the entire unamortized remainder of the fee goes into that season's balance-sheet in one big red chunk. Including this season, Félix has four years remaining on his contract, meaning there's something in the neighborhood of €60m still to amortize. What this means, in very basic terms, is that in order to avoid a big red number on the balance sheet—which would affect next season's Financial Fair Play calculations, among other things—if Atlético wants to sell Félix this summer, he'd have to fetch at least a €60m transfer fee.

It's a measure of how poorly this whole union has gone, of the damage to Félix's reputation done by his time in Madrid (and by hilariously free-spending Chelsea having made no effort to acquire him permanently at the end of the loan), and of the dire financial shape some formerly profligate clubs are in that €60m now looks like an uncertain transfer figure for a very cool 23-year-old attacker who fetched more than double that four years ago. Félix's publicly stated preference for Barcelona, and reported willingness to wait until the window's final day to see if Barça can muster it, certainly don't help Atlético's chances: Barcelona very famously is very broke right now, hasn't yet managed to register all of the players already on its books, and as of this writing is negotiating a loan of Manchester City's João Cancelo that seems very likely to consume most or all of whatever summer budget the club has left.

That isn't to suggest that nobody would (or will) pay €60m for João Félix! He is still very young, and the list of players 23-years-old or younger who are his equal in pure talent is very short. It is not hard at all to imagine a scenario in which two years from now some club's supporters are looking back and being like I can't believe we got João Félix for so cheap! and several other clubs' supporters are all Those damn fuckers about it. But you can imagine some of the stronger clubs might balk at the potential pain-in-the-ass of pursuing Félix for the last week of the summer window, holding aside budget margin that could otherwise be spent on players who aren't holding out for Barcelona, only to be smushed aside at the last minute because Joan Laporta discovered yet another shady "financial lever" he could pull to sign a name-brand player at a steep discount.

Another loan is an option, and probably likelier at this point than an out-and-out transfer, though it's still complicated. As The Athletic's Dermot Corrigan reports, Atlético "would want a fee for this to happen, to cover the €15 million of [Félix's] annual amortization on a contract that ties him to the Metropolitano until 2027. They would also like the new club to cover his annual salary including taxes, which would put the total package at around €25m." Here again, there might very well be clubs that would more-or-less eagerly plunk down €25m for one season of João Félix! And here again, his determination (so far) to give Barcelona until the last minute to work things out is what gets things all tangled up. Barcelona almost certainly cannot afford anything close to €25m for one season of João Félix—not without, at the very least, arranging the sale of at least one player who doesn't want to leave, at a point in the transfer window when many clubs have already spent most or all of their summer budgets.

For now, Félix and Portuguese super-agent Jorge Mendes seem all-in on the possibility that Barcelona will get its shit together over the next week and come up with at least enough money to make the loan happen. But the clearer it becomes that this can't happen—spoiler alert, it almost certainly can't happen—the likelier it becomes that Félix will grit his teeth and accept a move elsewhere. Possibly to Wolverhampton in the Premier League, a club virtually controlled by Mendes, where Félix could have as much of the ball as he likes, anywhere on the pitch he wants it, and reestablish himself as ... well, as the kind of guy who shouldn't ever be playing for Wolverhampton.

Something like that is probably the safest guess at what'll happen. It's certainly likelier than Félix sitting out the whole season (even if Simeone wanted to relent and welcome him back into the squad, Atlético's loony fans have turned on him hard and might make that impracticable), and likelier than the club sitting on him and paying his salary for a whole season. Finer points of even our very dumb accounting aside, Félix's entire salary becomes pure loss if he's not playing, and his transfer value will only go down with another lost year in Madrid.

There's a kind of sad irony to this whole situation, with one of the world's most exciting young players all but frozen in place on a club that doesn't want him and probably shouldn't have splurged on him in the first place. The move that spurred Atleti's purchase of Félix was Barcelona, in July of 2019, activating Antoine Griezmann's €120m release clause to pry him loose from ... Atlético Madrid. It was a foolish, thoughtless move on Barça's part: The brilliant Griezmann would never get to occupy anything like his best role on a team with Lionel Messi, and his arrival just made an already bloated and misshapen squad all the more nonsensical and doomed. But Griezmann wanted to go play in Barcelona and was willing to alienate Atlético and its fans to get there. And what eventually happened? A bad fit at Barça, Griezmann played far below his best level for a few years and then left ... for Atlético Madrid, for far less money than Barça paid to get him, leaving a giant smoking hole in the club's books.

Meanwhile, back in 2019, stung from the painful loss of Griezmann, in need of dynamic attacking talent, and suddenly flush with cash, Atlético turned around and dumped the largest fee it had ever paid to win the João Félix Sweepstakes. It was a foolish, thoughtless move, bringing aboard a brilliant player who'd never get to play his way unless and until a club legend (Simeone) departed, if ever. And now here we are: Félix, the player Barça probably should have gone after in the summer of 2019 in the first place, desperately wants to go to Barcelona, which can't afford him, in no small part because stupid deals like the Griezmann release-clause splurge ruined its finances.

It's a tragedy, or anyway something like one, something shaped like a really shitty pretzel that bums you out to look at. But it's also kind of funny.

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