The story of Bebe – one of Manchester United’s most fascinating failures

The story of Bebe – one of Manchester United’s most fascinating failures

2011 was the year Bebe last played a game for Manchester United, but the Portuguese winger – who was living in a homeless shelter little more than a year before arriving at Old Trafford – remains to this day one of the club’s most fascinating transfer stories.

Bebe was the son of poor immigrants from Cape Verde, who were forced to abandon him as a child and leave him to be raised by his grandmother. But at the age of 12 he was passed into the care of a local church and moved to a shelter for homeless youths on the outskirts of Lisbon.

Edwin van der Sar, Bebe, John O'SheaEdwin van der Sar, Bebe, John O'Shea
Bebe was catapulted into the spotlight when he joined Man Utd | Michael Regan/Getty Images

It was there that his football career began, although the player himself has admitted that he didn’t like football while he was at the shelter, despite being so good.

“I had eight years in an orphanage. There, I did not like football. But my friends always wanted to play and I had no choice but to join in,” Bebe recalled several years ago.

In 2009, Bebe was one of eight residents from his shelter invited by Cais, an organisation in Portugal that publishes a magazine inspired by the UK’s Big Issue and uses football as a means to get young people off the streets, to play at that year’s European Street Football Festival in Bosnia.

His performance there is often conflated and confused with the Homeless World Cup, for which he was under consideration to represent Portugal but ultimately didn’t because his career took off.

Bebe was picked up by Lisbon-based club Estrela da Amadora in the country’s third tier ahead of the 2009/10 season. He once recalled that even then he would still sleep at his old shelter when he could because he found it difficult to leave the place he had called home for eight years.

Estrela tried to sell him at the end of that season but found no takers because he was such an unknown – PSV Eindhoven are alleged to have turned him down for €125,000. Instead, Bebe soon joined top flight Portuguese club Vitoria de Guimaraes on a free transfer because Estrela no longer had the money to pay his wages, forcing him to break his contract.

This is where the player was catapulted into the spotlight. By this stage he was represented by Jorge Mendes’ world famous Gestifute agency and he impressed so much with Vitoria during pre-season that a €3m release clause in his initial contract was quickly revised to €9m.

Just five weeks after joining the club, Manchester United came in and triggered it, with Bebe having been recommended to Ferguson by trusted former assistant manager Carlos Queiroz.

Bebe, Phil BardsleyBebe, Phil Bardsley
Bebe was a complete unknown in 2010 | Michael Regan/Getty Images

Only 20 and with precious little experience in professional football – remember, just a year prior he had been playing at that festival in Bosnia – it came as a surprise to many that Bebe was immediately earmarked for first-team involvement in Manchester.

Of course, any Portuguese winger at that time had enormous shoes to fill at Old Trafford given the impact that Cristiano Ronaldo had at the club between 2003 and 2009. Even Nani struggled to escape that shadow, so it was always going to be close to impossible for Bebe.

Bebe made his United debut in the EFL Cup against Scunthorpe in September 2010, appearing for the final 16 minutes of a 5-2 win. Less than two weeks after that, he got his chance in the Premier League as a substitute against Sunderland in a 0-0 draw at the Stadium of Light.

He made his full United debut when he started against Wolves in the EFL Cup at the end of October and scored the opening goal in a 3-2 win. He stayed on the bench against Tottenham in the Premier League a few days later but scored again a few days after that when he was given a chance from the bench against Bursaspor in the Champions League.

Bebe played for Man Utd in the Champions League | Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

By that stage of his fledgling United career, Bebe had actually scored twice in four appearances.

He never started a Premier League game for United but did appear to be taking steps in the right direction when it was him that Ferguson turned in the first 10 minutes of a Premier League game against Wolves to replace the stricken Owen Hargreaves.

Despite creating one decent chance, Bebe was described in a BBC match report as ‘mostly ineffective’ and he himself was hauled off later in the game with the score tied at 1-1 to be replaced by Federico Macheda. It was the last time that Bebe appeared in the Premier League and he was only named on the bench in the league twice more in the remainder of the 2010/11 season.

Manchester United's Portuguese midfieldeManchester United's Portuguese midfielde
Bebe was poor in a Premier League game against Wolves | AFP/Getty Images

Bebe started in the EFL Cup against West Ham at the end of November but was withdrawn at half-time with United trailing 2-0. He was again described in the BBC’s coverage of the game as ‘largely ineffective’ and was once more replaced by Macheda. The game finished 4-0.

Although he had a reasonable goalscoring record at reserve team level in 2010/11, netting five times in 11 appearances, it was increasingly clear he didn’t have the quality to make it at United long-term. His final chance came against non-league Crawley in the FA Cup fifth round on 19 February 2011, a game in which a single first half header from Wes Brown was the sole difference.

This time, the BBC’s match report remarked that both Bebe and Gabriel Obertan ‘looked out of their depth against the non-leaguers’. His last chance to impress was seemingly gone.

United sent Bebe on loan to Besiktas the following season but he barely played. He returned to Portugal on loan with Rio Ave in 2012/13 and spent 2013/14 with Pacos de Ferreira, where he found his feet, netting 11 in the Primeira Liga and finishing joint seventh among the league’s top scorers.

Bebe impressed on loan with Pacos de Ferreira in 2013/14 | Gabriele Maltinti/Getty Images

At that point, United cashed in and accepted a €3m offer from Benfica. But Bebe hardly played back in his home city and finished the 2014/15 season on loan with Cordoba in Spain. He stayed in La Liga to play a full season on loan with Rayo Vallecano, before Eibar bought him in 2016.

Bebe again struggled to command a regular place there and midway through 2017/18 was back on loan at Rayo Vallecano, who had since been relegated from La Liga. But his impact helped secure promotion and the club made the deal permanent in 2018.

Now 30 and a journeyman veteran compared to the unknown 20-year-old that joined Manchester United in 2010, Bebe is still with Vallecano back in Spain’s second tier – yet there’s still a sense of what could have been for one of the Red Devils’ most obscure signings.

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