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Joao Henriques exclusive: Jumping from Portugal to Slovenia; why Barcelona hasn't worked for Felix & Cancelo

At Santa Clara, Joao Henriques experienced a 'real' story of management. He tells exclusively: “The best experience for me was at Santa Clara because we built a team from the beginning in the second league and we got promoted to the first league.

“The first year in the top league was very difficult but we managed to stay up and in the second year we did very well and that was a huge achievement for me. I call this a real job because it has a beginning, a middle, and an ending."

The Portuguese coach led Santa Clara to two consecutive record-high tenth place finishes in the Primeira Liga. Henriques knows the league particularly well having also managed Pacos de Ferreira, VitoriaGuimaraes, Moreirense and Maritimo.

How does he reflect on this year's title race in Portugal?

"The league is very tight because we have two or three teams fighting for the title. We thought this year that Braga would also fight for the title, but it didn't happen and they are not doing as well as we thought they would before the season. Sporting is doing well this season and much better than last season, Benfica is the same and Porto have also not been as good as we thought they would be.

"There is one standout side though, and “at the top of the league, Sporting is the strongest team and they are playing better."

Henriques was often embroiled in relegation battles during his time in Portugal's top-flight. But he refuses to be drawn into a prediction of this year's toils. He says: “Regarding the bottom of the league, there are a number of different teams that are very close to each other. We cannot say who are going to be the teams that will go down because it's a hard battle."

After a lengthy spell managing in his native country, Henriques sought a new challenge in Slovenia. In June 2023, he was named as the new boss of Olimpija Ljubljana and explains how it was a 'huge challenge'.

Henriques describes: "I was searching for teams abroad that could allow me to fight for the titles and when the offer came from Slovenia, I thought it was the right moment and right offer to accept it.

“It was a difficult job because it was a new country and, in the first months, we had a match every two or three days with long trips. This meant I couldn't train properly with the players and implement my philosophy."

During his time in Slovenia, Henriques believes he improved significantly as a coach. The exposure to title races and European competition allowed him to develop his skills.

“It was amazing for me to play in the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League with this team," Henriques explains. “I was privileged to be part of this great club and thanks to it I feel more prepared now for future challenges."

His time at the club was made extra special by their time in Europe. “It was the first time the club had achieved qualification for the group stage of any European competition. We did it and were part of the Conference League group stage."

Has Henriques had any offers to take over at any new clubs since leaving Slovenia?

“"Yes, I have received some really good offers but I couldn't start a new project because I was in a dispute with my former club Olimpija," Henriques says. “Now, I am free and I am waiting for the right offer because I want to get a project where I can fight for titles. I have received offers from Portugal, Brazil, Greece, and Sweden. But I am waiting [for the right job] and I am eager to return to the pitch as soon as possible."

Henriques will be also looking to manage a number of talented players, like Ricardo Quaresma who was part of his squad at VitoriaGuimaraes.

“Quaresma is the strongest player I have coached. He was a great player with a great character, with a huge personality and very hardworking. He would give 100 per cent every time."

Portugal boasts some of the most talented players in Europe, but a number of the national team stars — Bruno Fernandes, Rafael Leao, and Gonçalo Ramos — have had mixed seasons. Yet, Henriques is determined they will return to their best form.

"Bruno Fernandes for me is a leader, an amazing player and he shows his qualities on the pitch and also his great character in different moments of the game.

“Leao for me has a huge capacity, he can do a lot better than he is currently performing and he is the most important player of a big club like Milan.

“Ramos at PSG has not performed as well as last season at Benfica but I think that his characteristics are unique and I am sure he will show his great qualities."

Another two players integral to the Portuguese side play for Barcelona. Joao Felix and Joao Cancelo are on loan from Atletico Madrid and Manchester City, respectively, and their futures look uncertain. Henriques is unsure whether their moves to the Catalan giants have been too successful.

He explains: “Cancelo is a player who has shown his great qualities at Inter, Juventus, City and Bayern. He is an amazing player but Barcelona has affected his performances because the team has not been stable this season."

Despite his talent, Henriques believes there are more complicated issues holding Felix back.

“Felix is an amazing player, has a unique talent, and can-do great things in every moment of the game but I think people put too much pressure on him and this has affected him badly in his performances." Henriques continues, “I think he should be more focused on himself, on training every day and not listening too much to what people say about him."

Even with a number of players coming into this summer's European Championships having had weaker seasons, Henriques remains optimistic at his nation's chances of repeating the success they had in 2016.

But is Roberto Martinez the man to lead them there?

"When Martinez came, most people were sceptical. But he has shown in the last year what a good coach he is and has made the team play very well. He had a fantastic qualifying stage and the team is confident. They are playing well and playing with enjoyment."

Will Portugal lift the crown?

“I think Portugal is one of the candidates to win the Euros for sure. They will be alongside four of five other teams that will fight until the end for the cup," Henriques concludes.

- adapted by Jack McRae

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Xhulio Zeneli


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