As the final whistle blew at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán, Atlético de Madrid players leapt into celebration, huddling around captain Koke on his landmark, historic 554th appearance for the club.
But in the background, substitute João Félix marched down the tunnel.
Diego Simeone’s remarks after the full-time whistle were clear.
“Today, the team played as a team again,” he said. “Working together, being in a block where we were comfortable and coming out very quickly.”
The return of Cholismo
Traditionally, Atlético are the equipo del pueblo. The team that reflects the values and the ethic of the Spanish capital’s working classes. While the middle and upper classes flock to the Santiago Bernabéu to watch Real Madrid, the Vicente Calderón was traditionally home to the lower classes of the Spanish game.
Fans never minded going to watch their team lose if they gave it absolutely everything they had. They were used to seeing their team be the less-successful one in the city they called home, but compromised for having figures they could empathise with. When the Galácticos and so on glittered and shone in the north of the city, it was only the work rate that made their rivals on the Mazanares relevant.
Diego Simeone reflects those values to the core. His philosophy has long been about sacrifice and uncompromising effort. Much of the criticism that the coach has faced in recent years has been for losing sight of those principles.
Think about the golden eras of Atlético Madrid under Simeone. The spines of those teams are not the greatest talents ever to don the rojiblanco shirt. Gabi, Koke, Juanfran, Raúl García and the likes are workhorses who kept those teams ticking over, who propelled them to success — without ever lighting up the show with their natural talent.
Those who have pointed to the loss of values at Atlético in recent years have pointed to João Félix as a reflection of that erosion.
João the niñato
With the pressure of €126 million on Simeone’s shoulders, João Félix has often played and stayed on when his performances or work rate haven’t called for it. That has caused a division that has struck through the dressing room, the media and the fanbase as a whole.
Considering his teammate Saúl Ñíguez once played through a punctured kidney, the image João Félix demonstrated in Seville on Saturday evening could be interpreted as the polar opposite.
Introduced in the final minutes, João was booked for petulantly kicking out and then hacking down Ivan Rakitić. In another context and with another referee, he could easily have seen red for his two moments of frustration spilling over.
The whistle went, and down the tunnel he went. While his team-mates stayed on the pitch to applaud the travelling support and give a guard of honour to Koke for breaking a 46-year-old games record, João was having a shower.
Once out of the showers, the 22-year-old — mired in an 800-minute goal drought and last seen assisting a goal on the season’s opening matchday — wasted no time taking to Instagram Stories to post pictures of himself in action. His team-mates, meanwhile, were posing for photos with the captain and sharing to the app their own messages of congratulations.
João is yet to post anything about the club legend making history sat across him in the dressing room.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this attitude from João Félix. It most likely won’t be the last. But it’s not one that reflects the values of Atlético Madrid. If anything, it flies right in the face of them and disrespects them directly.
A transfer fee...unjustified?
When João Félix signed for Atlético Madrid from Benfica three years ago, nobody expected an immediate return. In replacing Antoine Griezmann, he faced an uphill battle to substitute in for a man who had been the star of the show and a fan favourite before leaving on disastrous terms.
You’ll recall that fans were sympathetic, too. While the footballing world was left bewildered as to why on earth this promising teenager would join the defensive thugs of Atlético Madrid, there was patience and realism among a group of supporters who did not expect their club-record signing to be the star man just yet.
But the brutal truth is those times are now consigned to the past.
Set to turn 23 next month, the time has come for João Félix to step up and command games.
It’s time for him to find that elusive consistency.
Little has been made of the way in which Kylian Mbappé or Erling Haaland, once considered his rivals, have come on leaps and bounds while João Félix has stood still. He has shown flashes of that talent, but you would be hard-pressed to name a spell in which he has made more than three or four impressive performances in a row.
This piece is not an analysis of João Félix’s performances, his stats or his tactical role. It is a breakdown of how João Félix has proven to be a complete misfit — not into Simeone’s system, but into the values of a historically modest and humble club.
João was supposed to be the star who could propel Atlético to the next level. He was supposed to prove they could progress from the talents of one man, Griezmann, to another without a hiccup.
Instead, Griezmann himself returned to Atlético a year ago. This season, he is outscoring the man once thought to be replacement.
Money better spent elsewhere
João Félix was a gamble for Atlético, as with any signing of a young player so raw and inexperienced. Now may be the time to cash in and call it a night, even if that means failing to recoup the €126 million invested in him.
At present, it almost feels as though João is doing more harm than good. And it only takes a quick look at Atlético’s squad to start to think if his wages and value could be invested elsewhere.
While he warms the bench, Simeone has to tend with defensive shortages which leave him without options as his frail duo of Stefan Savić and José María Giménez trudge on. Nahuel Molina has struggled to settle at right-back. Imagine how much €100 million from a potential João Félix sale really could have come in handy for a club that struggled to stay within LaLiga’s wage spending limit.
Such high-profile sales have rarely gone well for Atlético in recent years. João Félix himself is proof of that, from Griezmann’s departure for Barcelona back in 2019. The terrible attempt at a rebuild in 2014 is another example, as Atleti could not effectively replace Diego Costa or Filipe Luís and simply brought both players back from Chelsea.
But this squad seems to have a much stronger base and enviable depth at the forward position especially, with holes in defense that can theoretically be plugged with the transfer fee received for João.
Contracted until 2026, João Félix is valued at €70 million by Transfermarkt and his future seems more uncertain than ever. Yet at the same time, it seems there are no serious suitors who would be willing to take him.
Atlético Madrid need to find a solution. João Félix needs to find a solution. This relationship looks like it is inevitably crashing towards an unhappy divorce. The list of excuses is running out, and the number of second chances on offer is dwindling.
A bright future awaits both, but right now it’s very difficult to imagine that future coming together.