Portugal optimistic Felix will fill Ronaldo’s shoes

Europe’s elite clubs circling as teenager realizes dream to play alongside his idol

When Joao Felix first found himself in the same locker room as Cristiano Ronaldo, he said it felt like being in a video game.

“It was weird. I had never seen him live, so close to me like that,” the Portuguese teenage sensation said. “I told my friends later that it looked like I was in career mode on PlayStation. He looked like a video-game figure.”

Still wearing braces and sporting a childlike look, Benfica playmaker Felix doesn’t even remember what Ronaldo told him when he arrived.

“I was just thinking that I was standing there by his side,” the 19-year-old Felix told Benfica TV. “It was strange, but it was a dream come true to be with him in the same locker room.”

Not long after that first encounter, Felix made his international debut with Portugal, playing alongside Ronaldo. A few days later, they were celebrating an international title together after winning the inaugural UEFA Nations League thanks to a 1-0 victory over the Netherlands in the final.

Felix was 3 years old when Ronaldo made his debut with Portugal’s senior squad at the age of 18. Now the talented youngster is being touted as Ronaldo’s successor on the national team.

“Cristiano Ronaldo is an example for everybody,” Felix said. “We always have to look up to him.”

Felix has been drawing comparisons to the 34-year-old Ronaldo since making a rapid rise through Benfica’s youth ranks. He debuted with the club’s first team last August and quickly established himself as a regular starter for the Portuguese champion.

A gifted dribbler and finisher, Felix was the youngest player to appear in Benfica’s B team, at 16. He was also the youngest to score at the Lisbon giant’s Estadio da Luz (Stadium of Light), at 18, and the youngest to score a hat-trick in the Europa League, at 19, after the competition formerly known as the UEFA Cup was rebranded in 2009.

Portuguese media said Felix’s eight goals and three assists in his first 1,000 minutes with the main squad topped the stats achieved by Ronaldo, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at the same stage of their careers.

Felix finished his first season with Benfica with 20 goals, including one in last month’s title-clinching match.

His impressive rise excited fans and quickly turned him into one of the most high-profile prospects in this summer’s transfer window.

With several top European clubs showing interest in signing the youngster, Benfica acted quickly to extend his contract until 2023 and doubled his reported buyout clause from 60 million euros ($68 million) to 120 million euros ($136 million), the largest ever employed by a Portuguese club.

Reports have linked a plethora of Europe’s big guns – Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Juventus, Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid – as possible suitors for Felix this summer.

The latest speculation suggests super agent Jorge Mendes is pushing for a move to Atletico, where Felix would likely be guaranteed more minutes to aid his development.

Benfica has hinted it won’t consider selling him for anything less than the value of the buyout clause.

Felix made his international debut as a starter in Portugal’s 3-1 Nations League semifinal win over Switzerland last week. He had a lackluster performance in a match in which Ronaldo scored a hat-trick that included decisive late goals and underlined his status as the nation’s biggest star.

“My first reaction was to put my head in my hands,” Felix said after Ronaldo’s performance. “I had never seen a hat-trick by Ronaldo live.”

Felix’s debut came at the same stadium – Porto’s Estadio do Dragaowhere Ronaldo scored his first goal with the national team in 2004.

It was also the same venue where Lionel Messi debuted for Barcelona’s first team in a friendly against Porto in 2003.

Felix began playing with Porto as a kid before moving to rival Benfica when he was about 15 years old.

Portuguese media said he made the move because some at Porto deemed him too small and fragile.

Felix’s height is listed at 5-foot-11, but he still looks slim and puny compared to Ronaldo.

Some in Portugal fear that instead of turning into the next Ronaldo, Felix could become another Renato Sanches, the midfielder who was highly praised a few years ago but has so far disappointed at Bayern Munich.

Still, most Portuguese fans are hopeful that Felix will live up to expectations.

“It’s always hard to compare anyone to Ronaldo, and it’s hard to imagine the national team without him,” 26-year-old Portugal fan Marta Fernandes said.

“But one day he’ll stop playing, so we hope that sometime in the future Felix can be a worthy successor.”

Associated Press

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