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João Félix Has Arrived

Photo: Octavio Passos (Getty Images)

Release clauses in soccer are oftentimes more symbolic than anything else. Clubs with leverage will often drop a sky high release clause (the amount of money they would have to accept for a player, whether they want to sell him or not) on a promising young player mostly just to scare off interest from the vultures of Europe when they come circling.

Before yesterday, most would’ve seen the €120 million release clause Benfica reportedly slapped onto the new contract of homegrown teen phenom, João Félix, as an example of this kind of symbolic clause. Today, after the 19-year-old Portuguese wonderkid went supernova in a Europa League match yesterday, that €120 million price tag must look mighty tantalizing for the game’s richest clubs.

With a hat trick and an assist, Félix was directly involved in all four of Benfica’s goals in their 4-2 home win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the Europa League quarterfinals. The youngster opened the day’s scoring with a penalty kick in the 21st minute, but it was with his stunning second goal that he truly announced himself to the world:

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Félix’s creative passing tormented Frankfurt’s defense all evening long, and in the 50th minute he setup Rúben Dias for an easy goal with a deft header from a corner kick. With the forward’s third goal of the day in the 54th minute, Félix became the youngest Benfica player to ever score a hat trick in European competition. The moment brought him to tears:

While yesterday’s match was undoubtedly the moment the broader soccer world took notice of Félix, the most degenerate of soccer obsessives have been watching out for him for a while. Félix first blipped the radar in January of 2018, after he scored a hat trick as an 18-year-old for Benfica’s reserve side. His presence has only grown larger since then.

This season, Félix has chipped in 10 goals and four assists in 15 appearances (only ten of them starts) in the Portuguese League. Earlier this season he became the youngest player to ever score in the Lisbon Derby, the hotly-contested showdown between city rivals Benfica and Sporting, and his performance in the reverse fixture of the derby in February—he scored Benfica’s second goal, and won the penalty for their fourth in another 4-2 win—was what kicked the rumor mill into overdrive. Since then, Juventus, Manchester United, Barcelona, and basically every other top club in Europe has been linked to sign the so-called “next Ronaldo.”

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Of course, the kid is still just 19 years old; it’s wise to keep expectations of a teenager’s impending greatness in check, even for one as clearly talented as Félix. For every Kylian Mbappé who breaks out as a teenager and thrives, there are many more Bojans and (gulp) Freddy Adus out there. Still, what Félix has already done and the skills he’s shown do make him special, and foretell of an obscenely bright future if he keeps this up.

As soccer prices keep climbing to previously-unseen heights, paying €120 million for Félix starts to look less like a risk and more like well-calculated gamble for a club willing to make the plunge. If Félix continues to develop and becomes, say, one of the five or ten best forwards in the world, then he will never be cheaper to sign than he is today, and spending €120 million to get that is well worth it.

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Naturally, Félix could fail to reach his potential for any number of reasons. And it’s something of a shame that what’s best for the player—which is probably to stick around at Benfica and/or a stepping stone club for another year or three, and then, once he’s established himself as a true star, move to one of Europe’s giants—rarely seems to factor into these decisions.

But as we’ve seen time and again with promising young players around the world, betting on talent when it first reveals itself is a risk most of the world’s biggest clubs are eager to make. There’s only a finite amount of talent in the world, but there’s an almost unlimited amount of money to be spent on and earned from it. And Félix is positively dripping with talent.

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