With victory comes vindication, redemption and revenge the basis of so many stories, especially in sport – and certainly this Sunday in the match they’re trying to rebrand the “Super Duel”, a cousin to the clásico. When João Félix scored his first goal in 12 games to defeat Porto on Tuesday, putting Barcelona top of Group H and allaying fears of another early European exit, he celebrated by kissing the badge he has worn 16 times. Five days later, he faces the club he still belongs to, Atlético Madrid, in the league, attempting to avoid a defeat that would feel a little like an exit too, even as early as this. “If he kisses the badge this time,” Atlético’s president, Enrique Cerezo, said, “it’s because he feels Barcelona.”
Or because perhaps he has a point to prove, every goal a rebellion, a message for both clubs: the one that owns him and the one he hopes will. Cerezo’s tongue was surely wedged in his cheek, mischievously noting “many players kiss badges”. After four frustrating seasons at Atlético and one aborted escape bid with Chelsea, on the last day of the summer window Félix departed Atlético and joined Barcelona on a one-year loan. In July, he had announced: “I would love to go to Barcelona; that’s been my wish since I was a kid.”
That was the kind of comment guaranteed to annoy supporters, which was part of the point. Félix was desperate to depart, seeking a place that would suit his style, somewhere he could be happy, himself. The problem is that getting there is one thing, staying another. There is no purchase clause, a permanent solution far from simple. Atlético’s coach, Diego Simeone, said he hoped Félix would do well: that way, either his sale price would be higher or he would return a better player. No one doubts Simeone prefers the former outcome; as for the latter, although the higher the Portuguese’s level is the more likely Barcelona are to want him, the less likely they are to be able to afford him.
Besides, many suspected Simeone’s words were not entirely sincere; there was a tension, a feeling this had become personal. Not just with the manager either, but some teammates too. Everyone knew it could not go on. Simeone has talked about Félix not grasping the “idiosyncrasies” of Atlético; Félix has made clear that at Barcelona the football is different. To which the temptation at the moment would be to reply: yes, it’s worse. They are level on points, but Atlético have a game in hand, have scored more goals, have won 18 consecutive games at home and are presenting an increasingly convincing candidacy to the title; Barcelona by contrast cling to theirs with a grip that looks to be loosening, victory on Sunday ever more vital.
As for Félix, he has scored three times in the Champions League, the latest fundamental and wildly celebrated. He has one in the league. His first few games were a revelation, like a man liberated, one who had finally found his place; Barcelona supporters could talk of having rescued him. There are still glimpses of the player he can be, a desire to demonstrate that to Barcelona and to remind Atlético of what they wouldn’t see or accommodate, a sense of vindication in it all. And yet that momentum has slowed and Barcelona are struggling to convince, their results better than the performances.
This match may help to define their seasons; it matters for many reasons and that is just one of them, although it is Félix who has dominated the buildup. Asked about him, Atlético’s captain, Antoine Griezmann, said: “When you arrive here, you know more or less what the coach is like, what the team is like, and either you adapt or it doesn’t come off. There were moments when João did very well, when he worked well, but you have to be consistent and maybe there was a time when he got tired [of it], that he no longer saw himself there and so he pushed to leave, and the club made an effort to find an exit for him.”
“I don’t agree,” Félix replied. “He has his opinion and I am not going to comment. There are things that didn’t go well but it’s not just one person’s fault.”
Each game offers an opportunity for one side to be right, none more than this. The better Atlético play without Félix, the more it was him and, while facile, it was not lost on anyone that their collective displays improved last season once he had gone to London. The better Félix plays without Atlético, the more it was them. The truth is both and neither. Either way, they’re better off apart. The recriminations remain – one columnist in Catalonia suggested that better than kissing the badge before Barcelona fans would be performing an up yours before Simeone – but so does the prospect of their being forced together again.
Griezmann knows there can be a way back. He too left Atlético for Barcelona, possibly the only place in the world where there was a player who does what he does better than he does it, but now he is back and he has won them over again. “All” it took was his being easily La Liga’s best player in 2023, miles ahead of the rest, a man who ended last season on 15 goals and 16 assists in the league alone, and who already has 13 goals this season, who is two off becoming their all-time top scorer, who leads them in every game.
Well, that and what looks with hindsight like the deal of the century, Atlético selling him for €125m and buying him back for €20m; the patience to play only 30 minutes a game as Atlético forced Barcelona’s hand; the humility to keep quiet, never complain; and the fuel provided by the search for forgiveness. “When not everyone agreed with him coming back, I was convinced that he was born to play for Atlético,” Simeone said. “He grew, he went, he came back, returning to a place where there were people uncomfortable because he had left, and he turned it round. He will be in the club’s history for sure.”
Félix, it seems, won’t be. Not least because at the moment neither party wants him to be. Griezmann has proven that you can return, you can make amends, you can still be the best. But his is an exceptional case and few doubt thatFélix and Atlético would be best avoiding a return, for everyone’s sake. Sunday night, when third meet fourth and he meets the club that owns him even as he wishes they didn’t, is a good place to start.