The strange Manchester United career of the Portuguese striker
If Sir Alex Ferguson’s 2013 autobiography constituted his attempt to write the definitive version of his history, there was an unexpected inclusion. One last act of bloody-minded defiance concerned the player most assumed Ferguson would be happy to forget: Bebé.
In the days before Manchester United began to airbrush him out of the picture, the club website described his £7.4 million move from Vitória Guimarães as “one of the most astonishing transfers of last summer ”. If anything, that was an understatement. It is one of the most astonishing ever. Ferguson admitted it was the first time he had bought a footballer without seeing him play. And yet, three and a half years later and at a time when others had dismissed Bebé’s United career as a bizarre failure, came the boldest boast on behalf of a misfit. “He had fantastic feet,” Ferguson wrote. “With feet like his, he was capable of scoring 20 goals a season.” As United wingers go, that puts him in territory only occupied by Cristiano Ronaldo in Ferguson’s long reign; even Ryan Giggs and David Beckham never got past 17 and 16 respectively.
Perhaps because of the controversy caused by Ferguson’s comments about Beckham, Roy Keane and Steven Gerrard, his verdict on Bebé was rather overlooked. Yet Ferguson, a man who rarely admits his mistakes, raised the issue of his strangest signing and seemed to suggest it was justified.
If that appears impossible to argue now and if Ferguson was in a minority from the outset, the closest he came to vindication occurred in the transfer market. The expectation was that an unwanted Bebé would leave United on a free transfer when his contract expired in 2015. Instead, Benfica paid a fee that could rise to £2.4 million. There is even a sell-on clause. Of course, United have not recouped their money. They were never going to. Yet selling Bebé to a club of the calibre of Benfica at least suggested he will not vanish into the obscurity from which he emerged. In football’s increasingly globalised world, it is rare that major clubs spend significant amounts of money on players who even the experts would struggle to identify.
Bebé was that rarity. It meant his debut had a certain intrigue: whereas most imports have been glimpsed before in their domestic league or in international football, no one knew what to expect. And yet in the 36 days between his arrival at Old Trafford and his appearance against Aston Villa reserves on 16 September 2010, the initial sense of shock had given way to scepticism. It was this, in part, that prompted my appearance at Altrincham’s Moss Lane ground. I was sent along to watch Bebé and to see if I could get an interview with him (which, as he didn’t speak English and I know no Portuguese, struck me as a distinctly optimistic request).
Gabriel Obertan, another young winger signed that summer, was also playing. That scarcely mattered, however: the interest was all in Bebé, the ultimate unknown quantity. It was understandable that the fascination with him had grown. Combine Manchester United’s worldwide popularity with his sudden rise to prominence and extraordinary backstory and it made for a potent formula in which truth and hyperbole merged. This was a rags-to-riches tale like no other.
In reality, there was scarcely a need to exaggerate. After he was taken from his grandmother’s care at the age of 12, he had been raised in a shelter run by the Catholic church; it was, in effect, an orphanage for many and Bebé lived there until his arrival at Old Trafford.
While United had not rescued him from the streets, it became part of a mushrooming folklore that Bebé had starred in the Homeless World Cup. In fact, he had scored 40 goals in six games in a streetfootballworld tournament in Bosnia; although it is a project designed to combat violence and bring social change to football it is not the same thing. Nevertheless, the distinction seemed slight. As Ferguson put it, “The boy had been playing homeless football.”
The more serious questions concerned his footballing credentials and his price tag. This was a player who was overlooked by professional clubs until he was 19, then joined the Portuguese third-flight outfit Estrela da Amadora for a solitary season and, despite only costing Vitória Guimarães £125,000 and never playing a competitive game for them, left a few weeks later for €9 million.
It immediately aroused suspicion, even with United’s claims they had to act quickly because Bebé was attracting interest from other clubs. (In his autobiography, Ferguson said José Mourinho informed him Real Madrid were set to buy him.) United later admitted agents received €3.6 million of the €9 million fee and Jorge Mendes, who had a profitable relationship with United, suddenly started to represent Bebé during his brief spell at Vitória. There are various theories to explain his signing which, if printed, might result in legal action.
They proliferated after the first sightings of him in a United shirt. The newspaper’s plan, I had been told, was for a picture story, revolving around a shot of Bebé. There were three scenarios: that Ferguson had unearthed a budding superstar, that Bebé was as poor as many were predicting or – the hardest from a writer’s perspective – that he proved quietly competent without doing anything spectacular.
The first and last could soon be discounted. It did not take long to guess this was a colossal failure of scouting and recruitment. As Ferguson phrased it diplomatically in his autobiography, “On the big pitch, his concept of team-play needed work.” That was soon apparent. Bebé’s first cross at least found a talent worthier of the attention, Ravel Morrison, whose subsequent shot was deflected wide by the defender Ciaran Clark. The rest suggested a player operating in a world of his own on the right wing. Crosses were whipped in, but not directed at teammates. Several, indeed, headed straight for the Villa goalkeeper Elliot Parish.
Afforded plenty of room – it helped that his immediate opponent, Villa’s left-back Derrick Williams, was actually a 17-year-old central defender – Bebé appeared unsure what to do with it, other than send in a stream of crosses to no one in particular. It seemed a sign that his unconventional background had not equipped him with the game intelligence other players had developed; certainly when United were taking or defending set-pieces he seemed to have little idea where to stand. Indeed, early arrivals at Moss Lane witnessed Bebé being walked around parts of the pitch by a member of the United coaching staff; while they were out of earshot, the impression was that it was a last-minute attempt to teach him which position to occupy in certain scenarios.
Ferguson wasn’t present at Moss Lane. Neither was the United chief executive David Gill, who had a particular reason to turn up: his son Oliver was among Bebé’s teammates. They may have been watching on MUTV; their absence raised suspicions that they had already realised Bebé was a costly mistake. Certainly there was a notable difference in class between the newcomer and the more gifted Morrison, even if both were upstaged by Villa’s Barry Bannan, who scored a hat-trick and hit the bar in his side’s 4-1 win.
The post-match search for some reaction appeared fruitless when Ole Gunnar Solskjær, then United’s reserve-team manager and one well-placed to judge Bebé, was nowhere to be found. Instead, someone better emerged, ready and willing to talk: Bebé himself.
Rob Dawson of the Manchester Evening News and I bumped into the new signing in the corridors of Moss Lane. Bebé was accompanied by a medallion man, his purple tracksuit top unzipped to display considerable chest hair, who spoke both Portuguese and English. Bebé, a friendly, likeable sort, was happy to field questions and his oddly-dressed and worryingly hirsute acquaintance offered to translate.
It is safe to assume he wasn’t a qualified interpreter – lengthy replies seemed to become rather shorter answers – and, as a result, we kept the questions simple, partly so Bebé, who seemed to understand some English, could get the gist before replying in his native tongue. His transfer, he said, “was a big surprise for me and everyone”.
His fellow Portuguese speakers were helping him a lot, he told us, and he realised he had to work hard to get into the team. Nevertheless, Ferguson, he claimed, was “very happy with me”. More interestingly, he contradicted the manager, who had described his new recruit as a striker, by insisting he was a winger, not a centre-forward. “I prefer to play on the left and right, on both sides,” he added. “I don’t like the middle.” Having never seen him in action, Ferguson presumably didn’t realise where he played, either.
It seemed a rare (for me) journalistic coup: apart from a press conference, Bebé’s first interview as a United player. The office sounded duly pleased when I rang, but less excited the next day and the piece they ordered never saw the light of day, despite another line that had the potential to both amuse and make a headline.
“I am going to be a brilliant player,” Bebé said. He wasn’t. To our surprise, given his mediocre showing for the reserves, he made his United debut six days later in a Carling Cup win at Scunthorpe (Ferguson, scouting Champions League opponents Valencia, didn’t see Bebé play then either). It was the first of seven senior appearances. Two even brought goals, albeit in fortunate fashion; a shot that looped up off the Wolves defender George Elokobi and over the goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey and a Champions League goal against Bursaspor, courtesy of a deflection off Ali Tandoğan.
Yet his shortcomings were apparent and his United career came to an abrupt halt after the 2011 FA Cup win over Crawley. Ferguson’s team were dreadful and Bebé and Obertan, the two wingers, were the worst of a poor bunch. Their non-league counterparts looked more accomplished players.
Neither appeared for United again. Obertan was transferred to Newcastle that summer. Bebé was loaned to Beşiktaş, and Rio Ave, where injury-hit spells were unsuccessful, and Paços de Ferreira, where his form even prompted talk of a World Cup call-up. It never materialised, but presumably persuaded Benfica to sign him.
Belatedly, and after four years of coaching a very raw footballer, his fortunes changed. David Moyes, who gave every other player he inherited a chance, did not even take him on the pre-season tour of Asia and Australia last year. Bebé’s status as an expensive embarrassment meant news of his loan move to Paços was difficult to find on their own website.
United prefer to ignore him. Perhaps, in the context of the £700 million the Glazers have taken out of the club, an amiable and previously luckless young man who grew up in poverty probably shouldn’t be begrudged the estimated £12,000 a week United pay him. But, as even a cursory glance at him revealed he was nowhere near good enough, quite why they bought him remains a mystery.