How Bebé went from street football to Manchester United in a whirlwind 18 months

How Bebé went from street football to Manchester United in a whirlwind 18 months

The scene is set in Loures, a remote city located on the fringes of the bustling Portuguese capital of Lisbon. Abandoned by his impoverished Cape Verdean parents as a young boy, Tiago Manuel Dias Correia – affectionately nicknamed “Bebé” by an older brother – is dropped off at the Catholic church-run Casa do Gaiato orphanage by his grandmother. She has struggled to take care of him in a rundown and penurious suburb of Lisbon, and is coerced into relinquishing her grandson due to a court order. He is just 12-years-old.

Arriving at the shelter with virtually no schooling, a forlorn Bebé is told by his grandmother that he will only be staying for two weeks. Those two weeks transpire into eight years. However, it is here at the Casa do Gaiato shelter where a compelling love affair with football begins to forge for the youngster.

Bebé’s formative years at Casa do Gaiato were spent engaging in a daily routine of prayer, schoolwork and discipline. It is here where he learned to read, write and play football. He had the choice of playing on a pitch with weeds sprouting from beneath the dirt or a concrete tennis court. These were the type of terrains where he would hone his skills. This was street football in its purest form.

For the first time in his life, a young Bebé had finally discovered some stability. Living in a safe place amongst similar boys who, through no fault of their own, fell victim to such misfortune at an early age. But it was not this misfortune which was the common denominator for these boys – it was their fundamental love of football.

The game quickly became an obsession for Bebé. He played for fun, for competition and for the sheer love of the sport. There were no tactics, strategies or philosophies on the dusty pitch or concrete court. There were flicks, tricks, nutmegs and goals galore.

Eventually he began playing youth football for the local amateur team, Loures. Bebé would later insist that these were the happiest days of his life. The notion of one day playing in a stadium that Luís Figo or Eusébio once graced would tease his dreams, but at that time Bebé would never allow himself to take them too seriously.

In May 2009, a 19-year-old Bebé and seven other boys from Casa do Gaiato were selected by the Associação CAIS, an organisation that utilises football to tackle homelessness, to represent Portugal at the second European Street Football Festival – Foča 09. It is here, in the small scenic town of Foča, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, that the foundations were laid for a whirlwind year in Bebé’s already turbulent life.

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The competition was organised by Streetfootballworld through FIFA’s ‘Football for Hope’ movement, and Bebé showcased his audacious skills for the first time to an audience, despite admitting he only attended “as a joke.” Although the Portuguese representatives failed to progress beyond the second group stage, it didn’t stop Bebé from scoring an extraordinary 40 goals in just six games. 

After his performances in Foča, Portugal wanted him in their national squad for the Homeless World Cup in Milan two months later, but that would mean sacrificing a previously selected member of the team. Understandably, with the tournament championing far more than just the prospect of winning, they decided they would have to go without him. However, Estrela da Amadora, a Portuguese third division side immediately snatched up his services and added him to their playing squad. 

Bebé was initially hesitant to join a team as he didn’t want to leave the safety and comfort of the orphanage he now called home. Estrela’s ground was a two-hour bus ride away, which was just close enough in his eyes that he could still live in the shelter and commute to and from training and matches every day.

He had become an institutionalised young man. Perhaps it was the comfort of the friends who had become his family at Casa do Gaiato, or an understandable anxiety of the outside world after such a crestfallen upbringing, but he remained an inhabitant of the shelter as he impressed in his debut season at Estrela. 

Although he didn’t quite reach the heights of his 6.7 goal per game average in Foča, Bebé featured on the wing or often up front for Estrela, and scored a respectable four goals in 26 games. He was widely considered the club’s star player in what was essentially his first taste of structured football at a semi-professional level.

It was at Estrela that Bebé crossed paths with Gonçalo Reis, a football enthusiast in his first year plying his trade as an agent, and agreed to hire him as his representative. Reis would later see the deal of a lifetime swept like a tablecloth right from under him. “I didn’t want him to look out of place and feel small,” Reis told Sportsmail’s Ian Ladyman in a September 2010 interview.

Reis recalls recognising Bebé’s talent at an early age. He claims to have been like a father-figure to him, nurturing his progress as a youngster, buying him boots and clothes, housing him on occasion and sometimes driving him to training or games so he didn’t have to undertake the bus journey alone. “The trip to training every day was not easy,” he added. “It showed his dedication. After training he would go to the shelter and help with the cleaning and things. They all pray at the end of the day. It is an obligation”

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Despite his impressive displays on the pitch, Estrela was a club buried in debt. They couldn’t afford to pay Bebé – the only player on the payroll at the time – his weekly wage of €300, and their star player subsequently walked out with five games remaining in the 2009/10 season. Estrela’s failure to pay his wage voided the €1.2m release clause in his contract, which allowed Vitória de Guimarães – who just finished sixth in the Portuguese top-flight – to acquire his services. 

At the time, Vitória were the only big club willing to roll the dice on Bebé, and his agent Reis sufficiently negotiated the deal in. Unfortunately, without their star player, Estrela lost their last five games, dropping from second place in the league to 10th. Struggling to summon the capital to plug their heightening economic crisis, the club was sadly forced to dissolve at the end of the campaign. 

After only a handful of pre-season fixtures for Vitória de Guimarães, where he showcased clinical form in front of goal with five goals in six matches, interest in the 20-year-old began to ignite like gunpowder. Bebé’s initial contract with Vitória included a €3m release clause, which was hastily increased to €9m following his impressive pre-season performances.

Spanish newspaper Marca reported that European giants Manchester United and Real Madrid – managed by Jorge Mendes’ client José Mourinho at the time – both had their eyes on Bebé as whispers of a raw Portuguese prodigy began to catch fire. Incredibly, he still hadn’t played a single game of competitive professional football.

As with so many Portuguese players in the modern game, football’s ubiquitous super-agent, Jorge Mendes, had a big hand in Bebé’s transfer to Sir Alex Ferguson’s decorated Manchester United. In his first ever deal as an agent 13 years previously, Mendes had forged a relationship with Vitória when he managed to broker the transfer of his friend and goalkeeper, Nuno Espirito Santo, to Deportivo in 1997. This was the nucleus for the creation of Mendes’ future colossal sports management agency, GestiFute, which now has over 80 players and managers on its books. 

It is important to understand that, at the time, Portugal allowed the third-party ownership of the economic rights of players, which allowed GestiFute, as part-owner and agent of its players, to accumulate exorbitant profits through both agent fees and a percentage of the transfers it completed. It was common for investors or agents to cover the costs of transport, training and accommodation in return for a portion of the player’s economic rights. Only in 2015 did FIFA and the European Parliament announce a ban on third-party ownership as it raised serious concerns over the integrity of competitions and increased the risk of criminal activity in sport.

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In July 2010, Gonçalo Reis arranged Bebé’s transfer to Vitória. His time at the club lasted a total of five weeks. In mysterious circumstances, Reis claimed that he suddenly lost all contact with his client, until he received a letter, dated 5 August, from Bebé, on 13 August – two days after his transfer to Manchester United was completed – outlining that his new contract with Vitória was biased against him and that he was renouncing Reis as his agent. Reis stated that he had been negotiating a deal whereby Bebé would own 30 percent of his own economic rights; therefore entitled to 30 percent of whatever fee Vitória sold him for. 

Crucially, Bebé had very little education or understanding of the intricacies of contracts or clauses. Reis protested that his client was improperly poached by the “big fish” Mendes, but worried that if he lodged an official complaint, Bebé would be the one to suffer after stumbling upon the transfer of a lifetime.

Originally Reis held off, but decided to lodge a complaint to FIFA in 2012. FIFA’s Players Agents Regulations (2008) requires players and agents to have written contracts with each other for a maximum period of two years, and Article 22 of these regulations prohibits agents from contacting a player while he has an “exclusive representation contract” with another agent.

A player can, as Bebé ostensibly did, terminate a contract early, but must have a valid legal reason for doing so or the agent can claim for lost business. Portuguese officials contacted the parties involved after a criminal investigation was launched by the judicial police’s national unit for combating corruption, but nobody was charged. 

Bebé signed with GestiFute only a few days before Manchester United activated his €9m release cause. Three other United players – Cristiano Ronaldo, Anderson and Nani – were represented by Mendes at the time, and all three players had moved from Portuguese clubs to Old Trafford in previous seasons. Ferguson claims that it was the recommendation of his former assistant, Carlos Queiroz, that influenced him to sign Bebé. However, this is a claim which Queiroz refutes.

Of the €9m United paid Vitória, Mendes pocketed a hefty 40 percent. He had purchased Bebé’s rights for just €100,000 in the days leading up to the deal, as reported by David Conn of The Guardian in January 2011.

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The mysterious nature of Bebé’s sudden transfer to United underlines Mendes’ remarkable networking capabilities and increasing presence in the game. Shockingly, Bebé was the only player that Sir Alex Ferguson admitted to signing “blind”, having not even seen the player on video, and met him the day before the transfer was concluded.

Nevertheless, life went on for Bebé. A Cinderella-like from rags to riches story, he went from sleeping in a homeless shelter and earning €300 a week to £17,000 a week at the biggest club in the world. United also agreed to pay Bebé a whopping £500,000 signing on fee, which was completely unheard of for an unproven player of his stature.

“He’s a player who is the fruit of street football,” said Jorge Paixão on Radio Antena 1 upon Bebé’s unveiling. Paixão was Bebé’s coach at Estrela just two months previously. “Nowadays players are schooled in the clubs, but he has none of this. He’s an old-school player. He learnt to play in the street and has that natural creativity, an irreverence, and that makes all the difference.” 

Sadly, Bebé’s Manchester United fairytale didn’t end happily ever after, as his raw talent failed to materialise into that of a capable Premier League player. “If Bebé scores, we’re on the pitch,” became a popular chant among the club’s supporters, though his chances were limited by the Red Devils’ wealth of attacking options. He didn’t start a single Premier League game and played a total of 334 minutes over just seven appearances for the club. Despite that, he managed to find the net on two of those occasions. 

After a couple of unsuccessful loan spells, he momentarily rediscovered a slice of the goalscoring form for which he was bought with Portuguese side Paços de Ferreira in 2013/14. He bagged 14 goals in 39 appearances for the Primeira Liga outfit, which put him in the shop window and swayed Benfica to purchase his services for £2.4m.

Nine transfers and eight years since his arrival at Old Trafford, Bebé’s latest objective rests with keeping Rayo Vallecano in the Spanish top-flight. His loan deal from Eibar was made permanent in August 2018 after his performances helped the lesser-known Madrid side gain promotion to the Primera División with the Segunda title.

The story behind Bebé’s meteoric rise from the streets of Lisbon to the Theatre of Dreams will forever be a curious and contentious one. Now 28 years old and with that anomalous transfer move almost a decade in the past, Bebé is still that humble, run-of-the-mill boy who frequently returns to visit the Casa do Gaiato shelter which he will forever call home. Although he never quite reached the heights of Figo or Eusébio, the dreams that used to tease him as a young boy materialised into more than he ever dared ask for. In his own words, “Football can change lives.”

By Alan Condor @alan_condon

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