The Big Gamble: Does €126m João Félix Spell End of Atlético’s Cholismo Era?
Two days after Antoine Griezmann announced he was leaving Atlético Madrid, delivering the message in a video filmed on a mobile phone that made him look like a hostage, Diego Simeone was asked who could replace him. The manager’s response started with a laugh and ended with one, too. “We need someone who plays behind the striker, scores 20 goals a year and doesn’t cost much,” Simeone said, cracking up. “It won’t be easy.”
Two out of three ain’t bad. João Félix is an extraordinarily talented second striker, aged 19, already talked about as a future Ballon d’Or winner, who scored 20 goals and provided 11 assists for Benfica last season, compared with Griezmann’s 21 goals and 10 assists. But he also cost Atlético Madrid €126m. That is more even than they will get for Griezmann, whose buyout clause dropped to €120m on 1 July, €24m of which is payable to Real Sociedad. It makes Félix the most expensive player Atlético ever signed – and by €55m.
That the previous record holder was Thomas Lemar this time last summer, Atlético paying €70m in return for a 70% share, speaks of market inflation. It speaks also of a shift at the club that made a philosophy of necessity and constructed an identity around humility. And that asks questions about Félix’s fit, his role within a team seemingly obliged to undergo significant change. But can they? Can their manager? And if so, can the young Portuguese lead it?
Tapping into Atlético’s historic identity, built around suffering over the previous decade and beyond, and articulated by the manager who was pulling them from the depression, Atlético’s philosophy came to be called Cholismo, taking its title from Diego Simeone’s “El Cholo” nickname and finding an echo on the pitch as well as off it. In short, they were fighters, born to suffer, to battle against the odds. And that, it seemed, necessarily meant playing a particular way. It is a way that has proven persistent, hard to let go of; a way with which they felt comfortable, that felt right.
The former midfielder José Movilla, a player in the early noughties, was a bin-man, which fit somehow, while the former goalkeeper Germán Burgos, Simeone’s assistant now, is an AC/DC fan who once claimed: “I couldn’t play at [Real] Madrid because of how I look. They’d make me cut my hair. Atlético is synonymous with workers: brickies, taxi drivers, churros sellers.” When Atlético won an impossible league in 2014, Tiago likened them to “Robin Hood”. Simeone had sarcastically noted that the difference in budget between them and Spain’s big two was “only €400m”. And upon the final whistle on the day they won the title, their eleven players out on the Camp Nou cost less than €40m. Cesc Fàbregas alone cost more.
At the celebrations, Simeone told a huge crowd: “This is not just a league. What this triumph transmits is much more important than that: if you believe and if you work, you can do it.” At the end of that season, their top scorer left. The previous summer, their top scorer had left too. This summer, their top scorer will also leave. But it is not the same now, the context has changed, and soon those certainties might be gone. Those restrictions, too; Atlético learned to live with limitations but now there are fewer of them, gigantic though their rivals remain. It may be that the revolution El Cholo started is ultimately what ends, or transforms, cholismo. Or perhaps not.
Over the past five years Atlético have spent €569m. This summer the shift has been even more significant. With Félix’s signing Atlético have already taken their summer expenditure to €180m. It has been driven by departures: Griezmann, Lucas Hernández, Diego Godín, Juanfran Torres, Rodrigo Hernández. That, once Griezmann is confirmed, will have brought in €260m. The old guard has gone and a new team must be built, perhaps with a new identity. And yet it is reasonable to wonder if those players who are left, and those who come to join them, will be able to do so – if, indeed, they will be allowed to.
João Félix made his international debut for Portugal against Switzerland in the Nations League in June. Photograph: Susana Vera/Reuters
“This is one of the most difficult projects we have had since we arrived,” Simeone admitted to Fox Sports. “Lots of players are leaving and it is a difficult moment of transition. We have a challenge now. The renovation began last year but it’s true that this is going to be complicated.”
He had previously noted that the man – the kid, as it turned out – who replaced Griezmann would not be “the finished article, a crack”, but “a Griezmann like the Griezmann who came to us from San Sebastián [five years ago, aged 23], a Griezmann for the future.” He added that this has always been the way Atlético buy, seeking out players to develop.
Simeone also said that he sought a player who could “absorb our ideas”, “similar to the style we play”. And in another interview he said that the best coaches were the ones with a “defined style”. Those are telling remarks.
In terms of age Félix could be that player but the former Portugal forward Simão admitted his doubts this week. “Honestly I think João Félix doesn’t fit Atlético with Simeone’s way of playing,” he said. “Griezmann made a brutal effort in defense. Often he didn’t have the fuel left to attack. Simeone’s mentality is defend, defend, defend, and then attack.”
That may be unfair, and Simeone’s conservatism has become something of a lazy cliché at times, but it is true that his style is defined. And it is true that this is something that raises questions about Félix’s fit, his ability either to adapt or to transcend, helping take them somewhere else. But, however much he leads, the leader is on the bench and Simeone is a man of consistency, not given to change: black suit, black shoes, black tie, his way of playing. Atlético’s way, he likes to insist, sometimes rather pointedly.
There have been moments when his Atlético have appeared ready to evolve but they have tended to get back to what they know, the evolution left incomplete, distrusted. One of the reasons Rodri is leaving for City is his desire to play another way. El País suggested that Griezmann complained to teammates: “We hoof it long a lot.” And a small group of players confided their frustration at the style to an opponent after one game last season. Strikers have found it hard to find their place.
When Simeone re-signed Diego Costa, it felt symbolic, as if it signaled that the new Atlético he sought was the old one. It was natural, for example, that Simeone should return to Costa: his other signings, other ideas, had not always worked. It was as if they did not get it and their coach did not get them. Since Costa left the first time Atlético have signed a long list of strikers: Mario Mandzukic, Raúl Jiménez, Griezmann, Jackson Martínez, Luciano Vietto, Kévin Gameiro, Fernando Torres, Diego Costa again, Nikola Kalinic and Álvaro Morata. Only Griezmann can be considered an unqualified success (although Morata might prove to be). Even the second coming of Costa was not the same; the context had changed.
But this time, given the scale of the changes, the men who are departing – Simeone’s men – and the fact that there are so many of them, it might be different. And one thing is certain: João Félix is different too.