The ballad of Bebé, from an orphanage to Man United to ‘home’ at Rayo Vallecano

Say the name Bebé to a football fan and there’s a good chance they’ll know exactly who you’re talking about. He’s the forward manager Sir Alex Ferguson signed for Manchester United in 2010 without ever having seen him play, not even on video.

He’s the high-profile transfer blunder who played just two Premier League games before being sent out on loan — first to Besiktas, then to Rio Ave, then to Pacos de Ferreira — and eventually joined Benfica in 2014. In that context, Bebé is a footnote, a curiosity and an uncharacteristic misstep as Ferguson’s 27 years at Old Trafford were coming to an end.

They probably won’t know where he’s been since. They won’t know that, aged 33, he’s now a club captain at Rayo Vallecano, 11th in LaLiga. They might have missed the four goals he scored in three consecutive games in October, including a 92nd-minute penalty winner away at Las Palmas and a 91st-minute equaliser against high-flying Real Sociedad. They might not know he’s a LaLiga cult hero, a maverick known for his ability and willingness to shoot from absolutely anywhere, at any time, with unpredictable and occasionally spectacular results.

“I have a long story behind me,” Bebé — full name Tiago Manuel Dias Correia — tells ESPN’s Martin Ainstein, sitting in the back room of a restaurant near Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, for an episode of ESPN’s “The Bicycle Diaries.” “People see me one way now. But I have a story behind me that’s completely different to the Bebé of today.”

It’s a story that begins with a lie.

Growing up on the outskirts of Lisbon, Bebé’s two older brothers were already getting into trouble. His grandmother — who was raising them — feared Bebé would go the same way. So she made a difficult choice. “She tricked me,” Bebé tells ESPN. “She took advantage of the fact that I was the youngest, and she put me in an orphanage. At first, she told me I was going to a holiday home. She said I’d be there Friday, Saturday and Sunday. And I was there for 10 years.

“Imagine. Nine years old. I was just 9 years old when I got there.”

It’s an experience that could easily be remembered with bitterness and regret, but Bebé talks about his decade at the orphanage north of Lisbon, Casa do Gaiato, with affection.

“At first, it was hard for me,” he says. “I’d had total freedom. Now I was living in a house with 150 children, all different ages, from different countries. It wasn’t easy to adapt.

“There were children there who had no mother, who didn’t have food to eat, who were beaten by their parents. All kinds of things happened there. Serious things, things a child shouldn’t see or hear … but [the people there] were also my friends. My best friends are five or six people who lived there with me. They were my family. Everything that I have today, I learnt there, from my friends, the people who were there who helped me. Sometimes — the place is different now — but sometimes I go back, and it brings back a lot of memories. I feel proud to have been there.”

“I always say that I’d love to go back, to experience it again. I’d make the most of being there. I used to say that I wanted to leave, that I was bored. But now I’d make the most of the time spent with my friends. I don’t know where they are now. I miss them. At the weekend we’d play football all day. The jokes we’d share. Even when I was punished, when I had to do homework, I miss those things. Life now is different.”

At the orphanage, Bebé’s ability on the football pitch started to get attention.

“Football was my passion,” he tells ESPN. “It’s what we did every day, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do in life, at first. As the years went on, I felt I was better than the rest. People said I had something. They started to see something in me, that I had talent.”

It’s been widely reported that Bebé was selected to represent Portugal at the Homeless World Cup, but that isn’t quite right. In fact, he was chosen to play for a team representing the homelessness charity CAIS at the European Street Football Festival, held in Bosnia in May 2009.

“There were four of us. Four boys, and four girls from a home similar to ours,” he tells ESPN. “It was four boys and four girls from each country. It was an amazing experience. They took us to Bosnia and put us up at a hotel, with a training complex. There were people from all over Europe.”

It didn’t take long for Bebé to get noticed.

“The first game was against France, I think,” he says. “We were losing 3-0. I came on, and I scored six goals. From there, it went crazy. I couldn’t even walk around, I was the centre of attention.

“I scored 40 goals in six games. And when I got back to Portugal, it started. Lots of teams were interested. Newcastle. A lot of Portuguese teams, too: Maritimo, Belenenses, [Vitoria de] Guimaraes. But I didn’t want to go. I went back to the orphanage.”

Bebé was in no hurry to leave an environment where he felt comfortable, but his talent made that difficult. “I played for the neighbourhood team, Loures,” he says. “From there, I went to [third division] Estrela da Amadora. I signed my first professional contract. But there were problems with payments, and my agent said: ‘rescind the contract’ so I was free to go where I wanted.

“I signed for Guimaraes [in July 2010]. I played six games, I think. Six friendlies. And then I went to Manchester United for 10 million [Euros].”

It’s hard to imagine a steeper, more dizzying ascent. From starring in an amateur tournament to joining arguably the world’s biggest club in just over a year. Ferguson admitted that Bebé’s signing was “a gamble” but said he was “a talent,” signed on “instinct,” who was worth the risk. A report in Spanish newspaper Marca claimed Real Madrid were interested, forcing United to move fast. It was reported that Ferguson’s former assistant — and then Portugal coach — Carlos Queiroz had recommended Bebé, a claim he later denied.

Bebé had been represented by agent Gonçalo Reis. He was fired and replaced by Jorge Mendes just a few days before Bebé became a Manchester United player on Aug. 11, 2010. The transfer was later investigated by anti-corruption police in Portugal, although no charges were brought.

“Imagine what was going through my head,” Bebé tells ESPN. “From having nothing to being at the top. I felt a bit lost. I had just signed the contract, and we went for dinner. On the television screen in the restaurant, I saw ‘Bebé signs for Manchester United for 10 million euros.’ The restaurant was full. A kid walks past, he looks at me, and starts shouting ‘He’s here! He’s here!’

“I called my grandmother. I told her, and she started to cry. I called my friends, and they thought it was a joke. It was a dream. It all happened so fast. I didn’t have time for anything. I packed my bags, bought some things and travelled to Madrid, to Jorge Mendes’ house, and then to England.”

It was inevitable that he’d experience some degree of culture shock at United. This was a team close to its peak, which had reached the Champions League final in 2008 and 2009, and would do so again in 2011.

“The first person I saw was [defender] Patrice Evra,” Bebé says. “He said hello. Then I saw Nani. But the most shocking thing was meeting Ferguson. I went into his office, and the first thing he did was grab my head, he gave me a hug and a kiss. He said to me: ‘From now on, you’re my child. I’m going to look after you.’ I was looking at him thinking, ‘Is this really happening?’

“The next day, I got to the dressing room. I was sat here, and then it was [Rio] Ferdinand. Anderson. [Wayne] Rooney. [Antonio] Valencia. Michael Carrick. Chicharito. Paul Scholes. [Ryan] Giggs. [Edwin] Van der Sar. They were all there.”

Bebé made a total of seven appearances for United, with two of those in the Premier League. His debut came in a 0-0 draw at Sunderland on Oct. 2, 2010, followed by a disastrous cameo against Wolves at Old Trafford a month later. Brought on in the 10th minute to replace the injured Owen Hargreaves, Bebé was substituted himself midway through the second half. He scored against Wolves in the League Cup, and against Bursaspor in the Champions League, but there was little doubt that he was out of his depth.

A year after joining United, in July 2011, he was sent on loan to Besiktas. A cruciate ligament injury with Portugal’s under-21s two months later was another obstacle to overcome. Bebé was never given another chance at United, with two more loans before a permanent departure in 2014.

Bebé says his failure at United was more a product of his attitude than a lack of talent.

“If I knew then what I know now, I’d have been [at United] for many more years,” Bebé tells ESPN. “I’d sleep more. I wouldn’t do so many crazy things. When I had a day off, I used to take a plane to Portugal. … [Today] I’d look after myself more as a professional, look after my body, focus on football. I was there [at United], but in my head, I was on holiday with my friends.

“But I don’t regret it. You have to think, I went from having nothing, in an orphanage, to a place with the biggest stars in the world. They were the best team around at that moment. I think it’s normal that a 20-year-old kid gets a bit lost. I didn’t have a father. I didn’t have my mother or my grandmother to say ‘No, don’t do that.’ It was me, and I did whatever I wanted.

“Wherever I went, I was treated like a king. People gave me things. I could buy whatever I wanted. So I felt like a king… A father can tell you ‘You can’t do that’ or punish you. You need that sometimes. If I’d been living with my grandmother [in Manchester], it might have been different.”

Bebé might not have been good enough for Manchester United. Few players are. But he isn’t a joke, either. He has built a solid career in Spain over the past decade, in particular at Rayo Vallecano, whom he first joined on loan in 2015 before returning in 2018.

“I’m not the best player tactically,” Bebé tells ESPN, talking about his street football upbringing, outside the academy system. “But there are things I have which other players don’t. My shot. My strength. That’s why I’ve had the career I’ve had, being different.

“A lot of coaches like me and sign me because of that. Because at any given moment, I can win a game. I could be off in my own world, but at any time I get the ball and I score two goals. From 40 metres, from 50 metres. They know the ball can go in. I’m brave like that.”

Rayo are a club as idiosyncratic and unconventional as Bebé the footballer. It’s a good fit.

“I think that at Rayo, I found something like what I had in the orphanage,” he says. “Down-to-earth people, people who treat me well. I feel at home…

“I have a lot of affection for the club, and I always will. I want to be here for many more years. And now I’m a captain.”

Rayo punched above their weight under coach Andoni Iraola — now at Bournemouth — reaching the 2022 Copa del Rey semifinals for just the second time in their history. This season has gone better than expected under Iraola’s replacement, Francisco Rodriguez. At the time of writing, Rayo are midtable in LaLiga, 10 points clear of the relegation zone and seven points off Europe. They have just one win in their past 10 league games, but that ignores the fact that in the past month they’ve faced Real Madrid, league leaders Girona and Barcelona. They drew 0-0 at the Bernabeu, narrowly lost 2-1 to Girona, and went toe-to-toe with Barca in a 1-1 draw in Vallecas.

For Rayo, every season spent in the top flight is a triumph. But Bebé says that’s not enough.

“Rayo are a little team, getting big results,” he says. “But I think we have to think bigger, to stop thinking that we’re small, always thinking about staying up. I think Rayo are at a point where we can take a step up, try to win a Copa del Rey or get into Europe. Why not?”

That might be unrealistic. But try telling that to a player who went from street football to Old Trafford in the blink of an eye. Asked what he’d say to his 9-year-old self if given the chance, Bebé doesn’t hesitate.

“I’d say, ‘keep working,'” he says. “‘Keep dreaming. Don’t give up on your dream. Because what’s waiting ahead of you is something really beautiful.’ That’s what I’d say.”

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