In mid-2012, Atletico Mineiro, one of the two big clubs from the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte, were laying the groundwork for what would be a magnificent year in 2013. Young winger Bernard was tearing up Serie A and big-name reinforcements were starting to file through the door.
First came Jo, formerly of Manchester City, and he was soon followed by the wayward genius of Ronaldinho Gaucho. Over the coming months, they would be joined by returning terrace hero Diego Tardelli and former Selecao stars Gilberto Silva and Josue.
In the neighbourhood of Concordia, just a little to the east of the stadium where Atletico play, 21-year-old fan Bruno Henrique would have been grinning excitedly at the prospect of seeing his heroes in the flesh, pulling on the black-and-white stripes of his team.
Yet simultaneously his own hopes of making it as a professional footballer were fading. He had had numerous trials as a youngster, but none had been successful, perhaps a result of his frail-looking, wiry frame.
He was answering phones at an office in the city and, in his spare time, playing football with his brother and friends for their amateur team, Inconfidencia.
Their home pitch was a mile and half from Atletico’s, a mile and a half from the razzmatazz that Ronaldinho carries in tow. But that glamour, for Bruno, must have felt a world away.
Wind forward to 2019 and Bruno Henrique was claiming the Copa Libertadores, the holy grail of South American football and the very same title that Atletico won in 2013. Just like Jo had been six years prior, he was named player of the tournament.
In six years, he had gone from office receptionist to the best footballer on the continent.
Bruno Henrique’s is a fascinating case, going against all of modern football’s conventional wisdom. He never spent a single minute at a youth academy, instead cutting his teeth of the rough dirt pitches of the Brazilian amateur ‘varzea’ game.
And now, even as the best player in South America, he is disinterested in following the pre-ordained path to one of Europe’s top 5 leagues that so many young players here refer to as their ‘dream’.
His first opportunity came after being spotted winning an amateur tournament just a month after Ronaldinho had arrived at Atletico. On the advice of a local journalist, Bruno was taken on by Atletico’s big rivals Cruzeiro.
Subsequently, Cruzeiro loaned him out, before a couple of permanent moves to the oft cash-strapped and supporter-less minnows of Brazil’s state leagues. He would have been making a living from the game, but he was still a long way from the luxury of the top level.
I got offers to leave. Better offers financially. I talked to my family and we decided to stay. We are so happy in Rio de Janeiro, at Flamengo.Bruno Henrique
Then, in 2015, he was signed permanently by Serie A club Goiás on the recommendation of an agent. It was the chance he needed to show his talent. A year of flying up the wing in the Brazilian top-flight convinced Wolfsburg to bring him in.
A few months later, he was lining up against Real Madrid in the quarter-final of the Champions League. Not only that, but he put in a stunning display as Wolfsburg beat the eventual Champions 2-0 in the first leg.
But he was unhappy. In an interview with ESPN Brasil last year, his brother revealed that, “He never wanted to go to Europe, but my grandfather and I told him to go.” A year after he arrived, with opportunities limited in the Bundesliga, he was back in Brazil with Santos.
Content once more, he began to show what he could do. There were 18 goals and 13 assists as Santos reached the Copa Libertadores quarter-finals and finished third in the league.
The next year though, he was dealt a huge literal and metaphorical blow. A ball to the face in January left him with a detached retina. Months of intensive treatment followed and he made a return in May. But he looked lost, struggling for confidence and form.
Yet one game towards the end of the year changed the course of his career. Santos travelled to play Flamengo, who were about to go on a spending spree, and despite being on the losing side, Bruno Henrique put in his best display of the season.
Two months later, Flamengo were parting with 23 million Brazilian reals to secure his signature. It was a risk – a detached retina is a serious, potentially recurrent injury – but it is one that has paid dividends.
As a sensational Flamengo side charged towards the Copa Libertadores and Serie A titles last year, he was their standout player. Gabriel Barbosa may have outscored him and grabbed the international headlines, but there was no doubt about which man was more central to the style of Flamengo’s attacks.
Bruno is the fastest player ever recorded on a football pitch, his rangy stride allowing him to top the speeds of Kylian Mbappe and Gareth Bale, and as such is a constant menace on the break and in behind the opposition defence.
But there is far more than that to his game than just pace. His close control and dribbling in tight areas are superlative, he can go down either side of the defender, he can finish well with both feet and head, and his leap carries him above even the most hulking centre-halves.
The crowning moments to the season came in late November. Bruno set up the equaliser in the final of the Libertadores as Flamengo turned the game in injury time. Then, the following Wednesday, he bagged his 32nd, 33rd and 34th goals of the season in the game against CSA, after which the Rubro-Negro received the league trophy.
At 29, it is unlikely that one of the top clubs in the top leagues would come after him, despite his ability level. But, he admitted last month, “Because of everything that happened in 2019, I got offers to leave. Better offers financially. I talked to my family and we decided to stay. We are so happy in Rio de Janeiro, at Flamengo.
“A lot of European clubs don’t have the infrastructure that Flamengo have. In my country, playing where I feel good, the desire to stay weighed more heavily.”
It looks, then, like Bruno Henrique is here for good. It makes a nice change that if Chinese, American or European audiences want to watch South America’s best player, they will have to do so from afar.