LONDON: The new season may just be three games old, but fans are already saying that Bruno Henrique is the best foreign signing that Al-Ittihad have made in years.
If the Brazilian continues as he has started then this campaign may end up being much better than the last two which saw the two-time Asian champions languishing in the unfamiliar surroundings of the bottom half of the Saudi Pro League table.
The 31-year-old, a hard-working midfielder with an eye for a pass who helps out at the back and in attack, has spent much of his career challenging for titles with clubs that are as big in Brazil and South America as Al-Ittihad are in Saudi Arabia and Asia.
With a league title in 2015 for Corinthians and then again for Palmeiras three years later, when he was named in the league’s team of the season, Henrique felt it was time for a new challenge and thoughts started to drift toward a first overseas move.
That helped to ensure that when Al-Ittihad, coached by compatriot Fabio Carille, came calling in October, it didn’t take Henrique long to say “yes.” He is continuing a fine tradition of talented Brazilians making a difference with the Tigers.
“I had heard a lot of good things from the many Brazilian players who played here before,” Henrique told Arab News.
Even with all that, he was unprepared for his initial reception. “After a long trip from Brazil, I arrived at the airport with no expectations, but to my surprise, people from the club were there. They gave me flowers and a yellow-and-black scarf. When you come to a different country and know nobody then a warm reception shows you how welcome you are. So my first impression of Saudi Arabia was the best I could have.”
Al-Ittihad have not been Saudi Arabian champions since 2009, four years after they last ruled Asia. Despite the struggles of late, expectations remain high, something the midfielder relishes.
“Corinthians and Palmeiras are two of the biggest teams in Brazil,” he said. “I know the kind of pressure that comes with playing for a big team. Al-Ittihad have a big history and a heavy shirt. We are working hard to put the team where it deserves to be.”
It will take time. “In my experience, we always have to focus on the next game. That is more important than to look at what happened in the past. We have to build, step by step, a whole road that will take Ittihad back to the top again.”
After getting a taste of the standard in the country, Henrique knows it won’t be easy. “I have played only three games but can see that it is a competitive championship. The players perform well and with intensity. I have been impressed. The coach told me that the level is high and I agree.”
The midfielder has settled quickly. A fine injury-time equalizer in his second game against Al-Fateh on Oct. 24 showed his energy, technique and determination. Then came a 2-0 win over Al-Ahli, third last season, that has fans excited.
However, they are having to watch from home, with stadiums currently empty in line with regulations to combat coronavirus.
“It’s the same in Brazil, it’s so sad but it’s time to be safe and think about the health of everyone. To have the crowd pumps us up and it is a big loss. We are sure that our fans are supporting us at home while following all the health protocols. We are working hard to give them something to smile about.”
When things settle down, Henrique will be able to spend more time looking around his new home.
“My first impression is that Jeddah is clean and organized, with the beauty of the sea and modern buildings. I hope that soon I will enjoy all of the good things and places that my teammates are suggesting.”
And he will soon be able to explore it with his family. If the move was an easy decision in football terms, there are always other aspects to consider.
“On the personal side, it was a tough choice. My wife is in the final phase of her pregnancy. We decided that it would be best for her and the baby to stay in Brazil to be close to the doctors who have been there throughout the pregnancy. Happily, the family will soon arrive in Saudi Arabia. I can’t wait to hold my daughter in my arms.”
Holding the league trophy may take a little longer, but with players of the quality of Bruno Henrique, the good times may be just around the corner for Al-Ittihad.