Who is Joao Felix? The Ronaldo-obsessed wonderkid courted by Europe’s top clubs

March 19, 2019 0 By NIKESHOE

Manchester United, Real Madrid and PSG are all tracking the 19-year-old but he has expressed his interest in playing alongside the Juventus forward

“Portugal’s best player was at Alvalade… and it was nice of Ronaldo to have gone there to watch him play.”

Former Benfica vice-president Rui Gomes da Silva’s words, though preposterous, perfectly illustrate the excitement surrounding Joao Felix, the club’s new wonderkid.

The 19-year-old’s cool finish past Sporting goalkeeper Renan Ribeiro on Sunday brought his tally in the season to eight goals and three assists in all competitions. All that in just over 1,000 minutes of game time.

With his display in the Lisbon derby, Felix drew admiring glances from the 45,000 spectators at Estadio de Alvalade, including Portugal superstar Ronaldo, who couldn’t have helped but be impressed by Benfica’s teenage sensation even in spite of his Sporting ties.

Indeed, during his first 1,000 minutes at senior level, Ronaldo had scored three goals and produced one assist. Felix, though, has not only surpassed his compatriot in that regard, his numbers are also better than those of Neymar (four goals and two assists) and Kylian Mbappe (four goals and six assists) within the same time frame.

According to AS, only Lionel Messi, who racked up 13 goals and eight assists in his first 1,000 minutes in a Barcelona jersey at senior level, has made a better start to a professional career.

However, while everything seems to be coming very easily to Felix right now, there were difficulties at underage level.

His talent was obvious from an early age and he was picked up by Porto as an eight-year-old. However, Felix was a skinny kid, described by his mother as “a late bloomer”, and Porto restricted his game time before ultimately concluding that he was not physically strong enough for the highest level.

They released him in 2014 after seven years within the club’s youth sector. It was a massive mistake.

Described as “a later bloomer” by his mother, Felix has gone from strength to strength since joining Benfica, the club he had previously shunned to join Porto.

He progressed rapidly through the ranks at the Estadio da Luz, becoming the youngest-ever player to feature and score in Portugal’s second division while playing for the club’s B side.

He was omitted from the Portugal U-19 squad that would go on to win the European Championship last summer so that he could do pre-season with Benfica’s senior squad, and was immediately rewarded with a two-minute cameo in the league victory at Boavista on August 18.

The following week would be magical for Felix, who featured in the Champions League play-off match against PAOK as a substitute and came off the bench to score an 86th-minute equaliser in the derby against Sporting with a bullet header.

The goal sent the stands into raptures – a moment he described as “the coolest” of his life in an article for The Players’ Tribune – and put his name on everyone’s lips, but his involvement for the rest of 2018 was limited to a handful of cup games and the odd substitute appearance.

Ultimately, It would take a coaching change at Benfica for Felix to finally secure regular first-team football.

In January, Rui Vitoria left the club following a 2-0 defeat at Portimonense and his successor, Bruno Lage – who had coached Felix in the B side – immediately made the youngster a key part of his 4-4-2 system.

The 19-year-old has formed a lethal partnership with Switzerland international Haris Seferovic, who has since scored seven goals in all competitions – one more than he had during the first five months of the season.

It is hard to put a label on Felix, who has earned comparisons to legendary playmakers like Rui Costa and Zinedine Zidane for his creativity and ability to dictate the pace of the game.

However, others see similarities with Johan Cruyff and Bernardo Silva because he enjoys roaming freely about the pitch, while at the same time exhibiting a profound understanding of the game that is rare in one so young.

Essentially, he is everything one can ask for from a modern attacker: a strong finisher with both feet and his head, but also a player that makes his team-mates perform better, as well as being a game-changer that coaches can turn to for inspiration.

He does not want to be tied down to one area of the pitch and his footballing idols are a reflection of the versatility he has displayed this season: he grew up idolising Kaka and now enjoys watching Neymar.

In that context, it will not come as a surprise to learn that Felix has been tracked by Europe’s top clubs for some time now.

Manchester United, Real Madrid, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain are all closely monitoring a special talent that has been valued at €120 million by Benfica.

The player’s next destination is anything but certain yet he has made no secret of his desire to learn his trade under the guidance of his country’s most famous footballer, telling Tuttosport: “I would like to play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo because he is simply the best.

“He is an idol, a world icon, an example for everyone. The mere fact of being next to him, of being able to train with a monster like him, would allow me to grow further.

“He always wants to improve. He is an inspiration for me.”

One can imagine that Ronaldo liked what he saw at the Alvalade too and maybe even passed on a glowing report to his employers in Turin, in much the same way that Manchester United’s players urged Sir Alex Ferguson to sign the five-time Ballon d’Or winner after facing him in Lisbon back in 2003.

For Juve, it could well prove very nice indeed that Ronaldo got to see Joao Felix play.