Whether the word got around to Cristiano Ronaldo is unclear, but Pep Guardiola’s opinion that Bernardo Silva is “already the biggest star” on the Portugal national team made headlines in Lisbon and Porto. On leave from international duty for the Nations League games last September, October and November, Ronaldo reappeared for his country at the next available opportunity after that remark. A coincidence and nothing more, surely.
Three years on from his Euro 2016 triumph in Paris, the coach of the Selecao, Fernando Santos, finds himself in an enviable position. It’s not just the latest bloom in Bernardo’s development and the level of confidence he gives Portugal as they prepare to make the most of home advantage and seize the chance to lift the inaugural Nations League in front of their own fans. It’s also the new generation succeeding the old.
Ronaldo may think he has the biological age of a 23-year-old — he may well end up Tom Brady-ing his way into his 40s for all we know — but as the muscle injury he suffered in his comeback against Serbia showed, to say nothing of the knee strain that brought his appearance in the Euro 2016 final to a premature end, Portugal can no longer rely on him as much as they did in the past. Bernardo and Bruno Fernandes are stepping up, but fortunately for Santos and Portuguese football as a whole, a star of perhaps even greater potential was born this season.
The first whispers about a new Portuguese wonderkid started two years ago as Joao Felix inspired Benfica to the final of the UEFA Youth League. Already a regular for Benfica II, the club’s second team, one Segunda Liga record after another tumbled as the precocious Felix first became the youngest player ever to make an appearance in Portugal’s second tier, then its youngest goal scorer and then its youngest hat trick hero with an eyebrow-raising display against Famalicao.
Not exactly short of fresh talent — Portugal won the Under-17 Euros in 2016 and the Under-19 equivalent last summer — Felix, who did not feature in either of those successes, is considered the country’s best prospect since Ronaldo.
Insulted by “a dozen imbeciles” as he joined up with the senior national team for a training camp outside Vila Nova de Gaia this week, the abuse Felix copped was reflective of the bitter regret felt by fans of nearby Porto that, after spending seven years in their academy, he left for Benfica.
As inexcusable as it is to turn on a teenager for doing what he felt was best for his career, you can understand the anger. Perhaps it would be better directed at Porto, though, for not fully appreciating the prodigiousness of Felix’s ability when they had it.
His breakout season in the Benfica first team didn’t just capture a county’s imagination but that of an entire continent, too. Look at it this way: By the time he’d made his fifth senior appearance, the board were already rolling out a new contract, fearful that the €51.5 million buyout clause would be considered cheap by Europe’s superclubs. Benfica more than doubled it, bumping the figure up to €120m for good measure. Should someone write them a check for that amount this summer, Felix would become the most expensive Portuguese player of all time, overshadowing even Ronaldo.
He has been in sensational form since the turn of the year, finishing the campaign with 20 goals and seven assists in all competitions. Benfica fans will reflect on how he rescued them in the first Lisbon derby with a late equaliser as a substitute, not to mention the other goals he scored in wins against Sporting and Porto in O Classico. However, the virtuoso display against Eintracht Frankfurt in April stands out as one of the best individual performances by any player in Europe this season.
Felix became the youngest player in Europa League history to score a hat trick, but the totality of his display, beyond the goals themselves, was breathtaking. It started with a reverse ball for Gedson Fernandes that effectively won Benfica a penalty and got Evan N’Dicka sent off. He converted the spot kick and ran the game, also setting up Ruben Dias’ goal with a near-post flick-on from a corner.
Santos’ decision to call him up for the senior Portugal squad a month earlier had been criticised in some quarters for perhaps being a little overeager. Why not leave Felix with the Under-20s, a team busy preparing for the U20 World Cup in Poland, a tournament they just exited at the group stage? But watching Felix against Frankfurt, it felt entirely natural for him to land in the Nations League squad, particularly as it finishes before the Under-21 Euros, a more challenging competition for him than the one that’s going on at the moment.
Ultimately, Felix deserves the chance to learn among the best.
A picture of him and Ronaldo training together appeared on Twitter a few days ago, whetting the appetite for this week’s semifinal against Switzerland. The accompanying caption was tongue-in-cheek: “The best player in the world and Cristiano,” which further underlines the buzz surrounding the bright-eyed and bushy-haired 19-year-old.
Born in Viseu, the same town as Paulo Sousa, Felix’s game intelligence could perhaps one day be compared with the two-time Champions League winner. But his vision and elegant running style has instead drawn parallels with Manuel Rui Costa. The 11 big chances he created in the Primeira Liga this season point to a sense of invention that’s hard to find in a player who also scores so many goals. He’s a “nine-and-a-half” on the pitch, that artful blend between No. 10 and centre-forward.
While Ronaldo is not yet ready to pass on the baton, we have in some respects come full circle. As was the case in 2004 when the former Ballon d’Or winner Luis Figo mentored the young Ronaldo during a major tournament in Portugal, now Ronaldo must perform the same role with Felix.
“When Ronaldo started with the national team, the first one to help him was Figo,” Luiz Felipe Scolari recalled. “He was the first player to challenge Ronaldo to dribble and shoot, to score goals, to play his own game, to keep working all the time and become a better footballer. Figo took a position, saying ‘My son, try again, keep trying. If you see the situation is difficult, I will give you a hand, and if you make a mistake I have everything ready, so calm down. But you have to try.'”
Now it’s Felix’s turn.