Recalling when Sir Alex Ferguson broke his own rules to sign Bebe
When Bebe joined Manchester United in the summer of 2010, it became the rags-to-riches story that Hollywood scriptwriters couldn’t have made – but there was no fairytale ending.
Fans were left scratching their heads as United announced the signing of an unknown winger who had recently been playing in the Portuguese third division. He didn’t even have a YouTube compilation video.
Sir Alex Ferguson later admitted that he’d never seen Bebe play and reportedly acted on the advice of assistant manager Carlos Queiroz. That turned out to be a big mistake.
Bebe’s troubled upbringing brought him worldwide attention after he completed his move to Old Trafford. His unlikely path to stardom had intrigued and inspired so many people.
He’d grown up in the small city of Loures in Portugal, but his impoverished parents were unable to look after him and, aged 12, he was placed into an orphanage near Lisbon.
It was at the Casa do Gaiato shelter where Bebe learned how to play football and first honed his skills.
He went on to play for Portugal at the 2008 Homeless World Cup, scoring 40 goals in six matches, and then played at the European Street Football Festival a year later.
Bebe was soon spotted by Estrela da Amadora in the Portuguese third division and their coach immediately loved his style.
“He’s a player who is the fruit of street football,” said Jorge Paixao. “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.”
After a year of playing semi-professional football, Bebe earned a dream move to Vitoria de Guimaraes in 2010 hoping to get a chance in the Portuguese top division for the first time.
He would have to wait for that chance – but not for the reason he might have expected.
Joining Manchester United
Bebe quickly began to catch people’s attention at Vitoria, scoring five goals in six matches in pre-season and impressing onlookers with his skill, speed and raw talent.
Still, nobody could possibly have expected Manchester United to pay the £7.4million release clause for the Portuguese prodigy just five weeks after he’d joined Vitoria – and, unsurprisingly, that included Bebe himself.
“It was a shock for me, too,” he said. “For the week leading up to it, I thought the whole thing was a joke. I thought they were leading me on.
“Then I realised it was serious. I was surprised. I was playing in the third division in Portugal and all of a sudden one of the world’s biggest clubs wanted me? That’s not very normal.”
Without even playing in the Primeira Liga, Bebe, plucked from obscurity only weeks earlier, suddenly found himself about to train alongside Rio Ferdinand, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney and co.
For the first and only time during his career, Ferguson bought a player without seeing him play, hoping the club had unearthed another gem like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
“I know Real Madrid were hovering and so were Benfica,” Ferguson said. “It was one of those decisions that had to be made quickly.
“Sometimes you have to go on instinct and sometimes you have to trust your staff as well. This was a first for me, but we rate our scouting department very highly and our scout in Portugal was adamant we needed to do something.”
Bebe immediately began working with the first team as he tried to adapt to life in another country and meet the physical requirements of English football.
He made his Manchester United debut on September 22 as a substitute in a League Cup tie at Scunthorpe. The Telegraph described it as an “impressive cameo appearance” in which he “showed pace, trickery and an eye for a shot”.
Another substitute appearance followed against Sunderland in the Premier League in October, before Bebe was handed his first start against Wolves later that month, again in the League Cup.
It went better than he could ever have imagined.
Picking up the ball on the right wing early in the second half, with the score still 0-0, Bebe drove forward and beat George Elokobi for pace before his cross was deflected up, over Wayne Hennessey, and over the line.
It was a moment he had dreamed of all his life. He had overcome all the odds and his journey from the streets of Portugal to Old Trafford was complete. The BBC even described him as “the best of the United bunch” that night.
Bebe’s bright start to life at United continued with his next appearance in November when he made his Champions League debut against Bursaspor.
Introduced just after the hour mark, Bebe was played in on goal by Paul Scholes and fired past the goalkeeper with the outside of his right foot.
It was his second goal in as many games, and at that moment he was on top of the world.
However, Bebe’s dream soon started to turn sour.
His next match came against Wolves, this time in the Premier League. United won 2-1, but Bebe, introduced as an early substitute for the injured Owen Hargreaves, frustrated fans – and clearly his manager – with his wayward crossing to the extent that he himself was subbed off in the second half.
It was a performance and a moment from which Bebe never really recovered.
He quickly became a figure of ridicule across the country. The early promise, not to mention the fact that he’d just stepped up from the Portuguese third tier to the Premier League, had been immediately forgotten. No matter, he’ll forever be named on lists of United’s worst signings.
The truth is simply that this Portuguese kid, who couldn’t even speak English, lacked the footballing education to thrive at a club like Manchester United. At least straight away.
Bebe has also since admitted that he didn’t have the right attitude during his time in Manchester. The move just came too soon for him.
He said: “I never took Manchester United seriously. I thought, ‘I’m here, I’m doing well and I don’t have to try hard every day. It was my fault. I was messing around too much.
“It’s hard to play at Old Trafford. There’s a lot of pressure to perform at the same level as some of the best players in the world. I couldn’t get to Scholes’ level overnight, nobody could.
“I basically went from playing on the street to the biggest team in England, it was impossible that I was going to click in the first year, I needed far longer to adapt.”
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Bebe only made two more appearances for United’s first team after that Wolves game, playing regularly instead for the reserves but failing to stand out and being sent on loan to Besiktas in 2011.
Two more loan spells followed, and by 2014, he was desperate to leave the club.
He said: “Every day I called my agent to ask him to get me out. It was a bad time. When you do not play, even if you are at a great club, then you are not happy, so why continue?”
Bebe would join Benfica that summer, having only played 334 minutes for the Red Devils.
And 13 years on, his move to Old Trafford remains one of the most baffling transfers in football history.
By Nathan Egerton