There’s a good chance that, by now, you’ll have already heard the misty-eyed, sleeping-under-cardboard-to-riches story of Manchester United’s new £7.5 million signing Bebé – if not, then please allow me to summarise.
Born to poor Cape Verde immigrant parents in a working class suburb of Lisbon, Tiago Manuel Dias Correia (as he was then known) was placed in to care at the Casa do Gaiato, a children’s shelter in Loures, at the tender age of 10.
Bebé (a nickname bestowed upon him by his older brother) then spent the next decade of his life living, in alternate spells, at the shelter and on the streets of Lisbon.
He played (in between chores) for a succession of local amateur sides until he and seven other of the shelter’s residents were invited to play for the CAIS (the street soccer organisation responsible for Portugal’s Homeless World Cup Team) side at the 2009 European Street Football Festival in the Bosnia.
Bebé pulled up trees at the tournament, scoring 40 goals in just six games, but amazingly the CAIS team still somehow failed to advance past the second round. However, his goal-scoring exploits didn’t go unnoticed and a move up through the ranks from his amateur side Loures to Portuguese second division outfit Estrala da Amadora ensued at the start of last season.
A year on, Portuguese first division club Vitoria Guimaraes purchased Bebé on a free transfer (although various additional fees of around €55,000 were mooted) after some tricky wrangling, due to Amadora failing to pay his wages in full.
A timely bout of pre-season form alerted many of Europe’s biggest bullies to the mercurial rise of the 20-year-old once-homeless striker, and it was Manchester United who were first out of the traps in flexing their financial muscles – snatching Bebé just five short weeks after he signed on the dotted line for Guimaraes and, crucially, without United manager Sir Alex Ferguson seeing him play.
Got that? Good.
So, here we are. A fortnight down the line and already Ferguson has been prompted to defend his call to part with a hefty old wad, the kind of money that can’t just ‘go missing’ at Old Trafford anymore, for a player that was sleeping in a binbag less than two calendar years ago.
On Wednesday the news broke that Bebé had been withdrawn from United’s second-string for their mini-derby against Manchester City’s Elite Squad (i.e. the preposterously named reserve side) after coach Ole Gunnar Solksjaer scheduled a meeting with Ferguson to discuss their vaunted new-boy’s lack of fitness and finesse – a footnote in Bebé’s tale that was greeted with many-a-knowing groan. Kleberson/Djemba-Djemba 2.0.
The United manager has today sprung to the defense of his ‘blind signing’, dismissing the ‘vicious’ claims that Bebé has been a major disappointment since his arrival from Guimaraes and also backing his decision to invest so extensively in a player that he hadn’t seen in action until roughly 14 days ago;
“Bebé is on a programme doing endurance work because his fitness levels are not near the ones we are at. Other than that he has done well. I know he has had a couple of vicious attacks on him for why he wasn’t playing in the reserve game but he was never going to be playing on Tuesday.
The boy did not deserve that. He is a young man trying to make his way in football. They didn’t need to do that. It was a really bitter attack. Ability-wise he is excellent. He is a terrific finisher.
We have been very impressed with that. It is just the fitness levels he needs to get to.”
Of course there are plenty of feasible reasons for Bebé to have struggled during the first two weeks of his fledgling United career.
To make the sudden move from a Portuguese also-ran to one of the world’s biggest clubs must be daunting to say the least, and it is fairly shortsighted to assume that a player that has excelled at a mid-range level, but never come remotely close to playing at such a high standard as he currently finds himself (United’s reserves are, in all fairness, probably stronger than a few of the Premier League’s lesser lights) could slot straight in to the setup, especially considering his obvious fitness discrepancy.
I’m sure United’s intention is to gradually intergrate Bebé into the first team over the first season of his career in England’s top flight, but in these cursed times of instant (mostly media-fuelled) gratification (and given the ‘slow-news-day furore’ over his admission from the reserves), a little time and an ease-up of pressure may be necessary commodities that he simply won’t be afforded.
Time will tell as to whether or not Ferguson’s impulsive move to sign a homeless amatuer was another high-profile, high-outlay folly – but when I say ‘time’, I’m talking about longer than two goddamn weeks.