Bruno Henrique: Real Madrid's unknown nemesis who's no receptionist anymore
Bruno Henrique was the brightest star of the show as Wolfsburg stunned Real Madrid with a deserved 2-0 win in the first leg of Champions League quarter-finals. The Brazilian had two shots on goal in the first 15 minutes, totally outplayed his famous compatriot Marcelo on the right wing, and expertly set up the second goal for Maximilian Arnold.
The result was sensational enough, but the 25-year-old's performance is a much bigger story of truly historic proportions. It is unprecedented, because it was the Brazilian's full debut for Wolfsburg.
"Bruno Henrique was one of our key players. We wanted to surprise Real with this player," Wolfsburg coach Dieter Hecking said – and that undoubtedly is one of the quotes of the year. Just think about it.
The hidden gem
Zinedine Zidane could never have expected to see Bruno Henrique in the starting lineup, because he didn't know who he was
Once upon a time, in the years long gone by, teams could easily astonish opponents with unknown players. Few knew, for example, who Pele and Garrincha were ahead of the 1958 World Cup. In the modern era with the internet, however, when the data is easily available for all to use, such surprises became impossible.
Coaches can think of unusual tactics, employ players in unorthodox positions and work on some smart dead-ball routines in order to outwit their rivals. They cannot just bring on someone who the opposition are totally unaware of.
And yet, that is what Wolfsburg achieved – not in a regular league fixture at the beginning of the season in August, but rather on the biggest stage of them all in April. Zinedine Zidane could never have expected to see Bruno Henrique in the starting lineup, because he didn't know who he was. Even Wolfsburg fans knew next to nothing about him.
When the Brazilian was signed on the last day of January transfer window, sporting manager Klaus Allofs said: "He will need time to get accustomed to the team." That indeed seemed to be the case.
Bruno Henrique was only used as a substitute in five Bundesliga matches before the Real Madrid meeting. The longest of those appearances lasted 45 minutes in a 3-0 thrashing at the hands of Bayer Leverkusen, when the defeat should actually have been much bigger. The new recruit was poor, just like all of his team-mates.
He spent both of the Champions League last 16 fixtures against Gent on the bench. The very idea of giving him his full debut in the toughest game imaginable looked outright ridiculous.
And yet, that was Hecking's plan. In retrospect, it is obvious that he decided to hide Bruno Henrique in order for the Brazilian to showcase his talents against the Spanish giants. It was an incredibly bold move, bordering on insanity – and it worked out perfectly.
At the start, coach Wagner Lopes mostly used him as a substitute in Campeonato Goiano, but scoring the winner in the big derby against Atletico Goiano changed his reputation.
The whole story is even more remarkable when you take into account that Bruno Henrique worked as a reception clerk just four years ago. His skills were not appreciated at Cruzeiro’s academy in his hometown of Belo Horizonte, and the youngster needed a regular job to make his living.
His footballing career started in 2012 at the tiny club that goes by the name of Uberlandia – and no, we didn't make that up. A couple of years later he moved to another small outfit named Itumbiara.
Having scored some remarkable goals in the second division of Campeonato Goiano – the regional tournament of Goias state – big teams started to take notice. The largest team of the state, fittingly named Goias, signed Bruno Henrique on a short-term contract at the beginning of 2015.
At the start, coach Wagner Lopes mostly used him as a substitute in Campeonato Goiano, but scoring the winner in the big derby against Atletico Goiano changed his reputation. By the time the Campeonato Brasileiro started in May 2015, Bruno Henrique had become the undisputed starter. The reality is, he experienced first division football less than a year ago.
The season in the Brazilian championship was tough for Goias. Despite the best efforts of Bruno Henrique and his striking partner Erik, the team finished 19th and were relegated. Yet with seven goals and 10 assists, Henrique had done enough to impress the big clubs.
He showed good control with both feet, a magnificent technique, quality vision and boundless imagination. In addition, he proved to be a very humble person who added a lot of character to the dressing room.
With his team relegated, Brazil’s top clubs started to circle. Sao Paulo considered signing Bruno Henruque as a replacement for Alexandre Pato and Luis Fabiano, while Internacional, Fluminense and Santos were also mentioned as potential suitors. Nevertheless, Goias were reluctant to sell, especially after Erik was transferred to Palmeiras.
The striker's contract was extended until 2018, and he was about to play in the second division.
My friend Josue told me good things about Wolfsburg
That's when Wolfsburg stepped in. The Bundesliga runners-up were the only European team who knew about Bruno Henrique's talent, and here's why.
Josue, the hard-working defensive midfielder who captained the Germans to their historic title in 2009 and spent six hugely successful seasons at the club, started his career at Goias. He returned to live in the area upon retiring from football last year, and naturally knew everything about Bruno Henrique. The striker himself remarked: "My friend Josue told me good things about Wolfsburg."
The veteran also told Wolfsburg good things about him.
For the club, that immediately felt right. Not only Josue, but also Grafite – the top scorer in that sensational 2008/09 season alongside Edin Dzeko – played for Goias in the past. Signing yet another Goias star was the logical thing to do, and Wolfsburg paid €4.5million for his services. The move completed Henrique’s journey from the bottom of Brazil to Europe’s elite.
That was a remarkable turnaround for someone who didn't really believe in his chances of becoming a professional footballer. The magical scenario became infinitely more stupendous when he delivered a world-class performance against Madrid on his full debut.
On Saturday, Bruno Henrique started in the Bundesliga for the first time and provided an assist for Andre Schurrle in the 1-1 draw versus Mainz. Next up is the return leg at Santiago Bernabeu, and Zidane's side will be ready to face him this time.
They might be prepared, but can they really stop him? That is the big question, as the previously anonymous Brazilian contiunes his phenomenal journey in European football.
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