Bebe boom: Portuguese reflects on his Manchester United days as he prepares to return to La Liga with Rayo Vallecano
Peripatetic winger stands on the cusp of a return to elite leagues as he reflects on his cult status in Manchester
Madrid can feel quite satisfied with its status as a football capital right now. Real Madrid are the reigning European and world champions hoping to win a third successive Uefa Champions League in Kiev on Saturday against Liverpool. Atletico Madrid have already won the Europa League to underline the dominance of Spanish teams in Europe.
For the first time ever, teams from Madrid are likely to constitute a quarter of all top flight teams in Spain next season. Real, Atleti, Getafe and Leganes will be joined by Rayo Vallecano if they win one of their last two games. Close to the heart of the city sits Vallecas, a working class area of dense flats which is the home of Rayo.
Former Manchester United man Bebé with an absolute worldy for his new club. pic.twitter.com/iEHEJw2tBU
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At the heart of Vallecas is the 15,000 seater Vallecas stadium, an unpolished, proudly working class alternative to the grand arenas of Atleti and Real.
Rayo have enjoyed a fine season, one boosted by the arrival of former Manchester United winger Bebe who arrived on loan in January. It was a move the 27-year-old didn’t regret.
“The best fans I’ve played in front of,” the softly spoken player who famously went from living in an orphanage to playing for Manchester United after a €9 million (HK$83 million, US$10.6 million) transfer in 2010 tells me.
“They’re a bit crazy and there aren’t as many as at other clubs, but they live for their team. I played here on loan before and knew all about the club.”
With 10 transfers in nine years, Bebe has got around, but it was his move to United which stunned football, especially since Alex Ferguson admitted that he’d never seen him play. But if his lack of experience as a footballer was intriguing, his background story was even more fascinating.
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Bebe and his four siblings were abandoned by their parents when they divorced, initially to be brought up by their grandmother. Aged 12, he was placed in the care of the church at in the Casa do Gaiato orphanage near Lisbon.
Bebe has a tattoo of Gaiato on his leg, the place he learned to read and write – and play football.
“I had so many good experiences at Gaiato. It helped make me a better person, helped make me who I am. I’m forever thankful to the people there.”
He wasn’t on the radar of any club when he joined third division Estrela da Amadora in 2009. A year later was at Old Trafford.
“I thought it was a joke,” he says of his move to England after only one full season of semi-professional football, “but within a few days I was at Carrington and training with some of the best players in the world.”
Adjusting was difficult.
“I was short of their technical level, needed to learn how to play football to that level and I didn’t speak English either,” he explains, “but Sir Alex Ferguson and the players did everything they could to help me. I know it’s a huge club, but they felt like a family and Ferguson treated me like a son.
“There were other Portuguese speakers like Nani and Anderson, who let me stay at his apartment because he didn’t want me alone in a hotel. Anderson tried to teach me some English too, which would have been helpful if he spoke English himself. Patrice Evra, who also came from a tough background, did all he could to help me. I was amazed just to be sitting with these players at first, but I worked as hard as I could and they helped me as much as they could.”
Still, questions were long asked about his move to England.
“Bebe wasn’t part of our scouting files for the national team of Portugal,” explained his compatriot Carlos Queiroz, who had been at United. “He didn’t exist in a system where nothing escaped us. I called my coaches and asked them what was going on, why he didn’t exist. I knew nothing about him.”
But what would you have done if you were Bebe? Turn Manchester United down? He has no doubts he made the right choice.
“That move changed my life. It meant I became a footballer, which I still am to this day. It gave me economic stability for the first time in my life. It gave me a son, Liam, who still lives in Manchester. I speak to him frequently.”
When Bebe lived in Manchester, he trained well, but struggled during the seven chances he had in the first team, he feels partly because it was too much, too soon.
“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.”
The fans wanted him to do well and sang ‘If Bebe scores, we’re on the pitch’.
“I liked the song,” he says. “I always felt support from the fans.” He scored twice, the fans didn’t go on the pitch and he moved on loan to Besiktas in 2012.
“I was happy with that move until I suffered a cruciate injury,” he explains. “I’ve had some really bad moments in my career like that.
“I hoped for more opportunities in England and at Benfica, who’d I’d supported as a child, but I’ve had some great moments too and played in the best stadiums in the world. And not everyone goes from the third division in Portugal to Manchester United in such a short space of time.”
Now he is on the brink of a return to La Liga with Rayo. “I want to carry on living this life and playing as the highest level I can for as long as I can.”