PORTO, Portugal (AP) — When João Félix 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 in PlayStation. He looked like a video-game figure.”
Still wearing braces and sporting a child-like look, Félix 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 Félix 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, Félix was making his international debut with Portugal’s national team, playing alongside Ronaldo. A few days later, they were celebrating an international title together at the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
Félix was 3 years old when Ronaldo made his debut with Portugal’s main squad at the age of 18. Now the talented youngster is touted as Ronaldo’s successor as the country’s top soccer star.
“Cristiano Ronaldo is an example for everybody,” Félix said. “We always have to look up to him.”
Félix has been drawing comparisons to the 34-year-old Ronaldo since making a rapid rise through the youth squads of Benfica. He debuted with the first team in August and quickly established himself as a regular starter for the Portuguese champions.
Extremely skillful and a gifted scorer, Félix was the youngest player to appear in Benfica’s “B” team, at 16. He was also the youngest to score at the team’s Stadium of Light, at 18, and the youngest to score a hat trick in the Europa League, at 19, after the competition was re-branded in 2009.
Portuguese media said his figures of eight goals and three assists in his first 1,000 minutes with the main squad were better than those achieved by Ronaldo, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe at the same stage of their careers.
Félix finished his first season with Benfica with 20 goals, including one in the match in which the club clinched the Portuguese league title last month.
His impressive rise excited fans and quickly turned him into one of the most high-profile prospects for the upcoming transfer window.
With several top European clubs showing interest in signing the youngster, Benfica acted quickly to extend the youngster’s contract until 2023 and doubled his reported buyout clause from 60 million euros ($68 million) to 120 million euros ($136 million), the biggest ever employed by a Portuguese club.
There are reports that clubs such as Manchester United and Manchester City, along with Juventus, Atletico Madrid and Real Madrid, are considering making a move for the young Portuguese forward this summer. Benfica has hinted it won’t consider selling Félix for anything less than the value in the buyout clause.
Félix made his international debut as a starter in Portugal’s 3-1 win over Switzerland in the Nations League semifinals last week. He had a lackluster performance in a match in which Ronaldo thrived, scoring a hat trick that included decisive late goals and reassured him as the nation’s biggest star.
“My first reaction was to put my hands in my head,” Félix said after Ronaldo’s performance. “I had never seen a hat trick by Ronaldo live.”
Félix’s debut came at the same stadium — the Estádio do Dragão — where Ronaldo scored his first goal with the national team in 2004. It was also the same venue where Lionel Messi made his first appearance with Barcelona’s main squad in a friendly against Porto in 2003.
Félix 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 to be too small and fragile.
Félix’s height is listed at 1.8 meters (5-foot-11), but he still looks slim and not nearly as strong as someone like Ronaldo. He has great field vision and is capable of nifty moves with the ball at his feet, but doesn’t have the same raw strength to overpower opponents like Ronaldo.
Some in Portugal fear that instead of turning into the next Ronaldo, Félix could become another Renato Sanches, the midfielder who was highly praised a few years ago but disappointed after leaving as a teenager to play for Bayern Munich.
Most Portuguese fans are hopeful, though, that Félix can live up to expectations and one day fill the shoes of Ronaldo.
“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 will stop playing and we hope that sometime in the future Félix can be a worthy successor.”
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