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Remember the Name

22 Jan 2019
Photo by
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
22 Jan 2019
F

ive days a week for six years, between the ages of seven and 13, my mother and father would drive me from Viseu to Porto.

It was a trek.

Round-trip, it was about 150 miles. Every day. Porto was where I would go to chase my dreams of being a professional footballer. And after six years, I’d made that drive so many times I had every twist, bump and traffic light memorized. When I turned 13 years old, we made it one more time, and this time there would be no coming back — at least not anytime soon.

I was moving there to join Porto full-time.

I remember getting out of the car, holding my dad’s hand and walking to the room where I’d be living with a group of other young players.

We sat down in the room — and I cried my eyes out.

I said, “Papa … Papa, I do not want to stay, I want to go home. I can’t do this.”

Courtesy of João Félix

I think my dad knew the weight of the decision that we had to make. He looked around the room, took a deep breath and looked me in the eyes.

“O.K., but you stay tonight,” he said. “And if you feel the same way tomorrow, or the next day, or the day after that, you can call me and I will come get you. I will bring you home, but I will not bring you back here ever again. That will be it.”

He had a tone in his voice that I didn’t know. This was serious, and it mattered. Something clicked when he said those words to me … like a moment of clarity — I needed to be here. As much as I was afraid of what was to come, it was necessary.

In youth football, you have to grow up fast.

I was going to miss playing football with my brother in the kitchen in our home in Viseu. That was the best. In our living room, we probably had — and I’m not lying here — like 15 footballs lying around. You see, the ball … she is precious. She is a gift. A gift to you, a gift to me.

My parents have this saying about me: “When João was a baby, he could dribble a football before he could walk.”

It’s not true, of course. But, like, it’s true … you know?

I always had the ball at my feet. Always. Always. Always. And if I was going to pass it to you, well, I had to trust you, right? I mean … that’s my ball, I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. You could just give it away or something, I won’t allow that!

I trust my brother, and I passed him the ball a lot. Quick passes, one-twos, the good stuff. The beautiful game, all that.

As I grew as a man, and as a player, I realized that’s what I loved — to have the ball, and to play wonderful, happy football. That’s when I’m at my best, that’s when I am me. But when I played for Porto’s youth teams, that didn’t always happen. They didn’t believe in me as much as I believed in me. They didn’t trust me on the field. They criticized me for my size. They took me off the pitch, they took away my ball. At Porto, I lost my joy.

People ask me about that a lot, especially because I’m now at Benfica.

In Lisbon, I’ve found my joy again. It took some time, some trust. I had to prove myself in the youth teams again. But Benfica plays a beautiful style of football — they believe in the whole, the formation, the idea of team before individual.

When I was playing for Benfica B in early 2017, one of my first games was against Académico de Viseu, in my hometown. I scored a volley and became the youngest player to score in the second division. To score at Estádio do Fontelo — just a few minutes from where I grew up, with my family in the crowd — it was so special. And I felt like playing for Benfica was starting to be worth all the roads I had traveled to get there.

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
A year later, this past August, I was playing for the first team in the Lisbon Derby. Benfica vs. Sporting. I remember walking onto the pitch for warmup — it was my first home league game there — and it was just packed. Over 60,000 people at the Estádio da Luz, singing and cheering while we warmed up. I tried to find my parents in the crowd. I could barely see them. I didn’t start. But even though I was on the bench I would not let myself look into the crowd.

In the second half, we were losing 1–0 and I was subbed on. The noise … the tension, it was immense. With five minutes to go, we were pressing hard. I’m not a goal-scorer, but I was trying to get forward. In the 86th minute, Rafa Silva, one of our midfielders, made a nice run down the right wing and was looking to cross. I was at the back post, like, Man, trust me, trust me. Give it to me.

And he put in a great cross. I did the easy part.

1–1.

I barely remember what happened next. I remember the stadium announcer coming over the mic and going, “Goal scored by number 79, João….” Then there was a pause, and the whole crowd went, “FELIX!”

Coolest moment of my life, for sure.

Benfica trusted me, and I hope I continue to repay that trust. Now my brother plays for Benfica, too. He’s five years younger than me. And I swear to you, when we go home at Christmas, we still kick the ball around the kitchen, we still flood the living room with footballs.

People say he’s better than I was at his age. I’m not sure about that. 😉

But I can say one thing: I trust him enough to pass to him.

That’s what it’s all about.