It’s the summer of 2010 in Portugal. Millions of tourists head to Sintra, a place of religious pilgrimage in at the coast of an ocean. Sintra has become more and more popular with tourists around the world because of it’s historical significance, religious importance and of course, a recommendation of one of the greatest writers of all time.
In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Lord Byron writes of Sintra: “Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes in variegated maze of mount and glen.”
Sintra’s glorious Eden isn’t so great for all of its inhabitants. Tiago Manuel Dias Correia was born there 30 years ago, and since then he was abandoned by his parents, raised by a grandmother and at the age of 12 put into the Casa do Gaiato shelter run by the church.
It’s summer of 2010, and a 20-year-old boy is still living in this shelter. He helps with the cleaning and prays every evening.
Fast forward to 11 August 2010. Tiago Manuel Dias Correia sits alongside Javier Hernandez Chicharito and Chris Smalling. He signs a contract and then raises up to take a picture with his two new teammates, and his coach.
Sir Alex Ferguson smiles because he knows one thing. He stole this kid from Real Madrid. How the hell this happened?
The baby boy from Cape Verde
Name Tiago Manuel Dias Correia doesn’t mean anything to most people. But that’s not unusual, most of the Portuguese people go by their nickname. And if I say that this is a story about Bebe, you’ll probably know who am I talking about.
He was a child of Cape Verde immigrants to Portugal. His parents Francisco and Deolinda abandoned him and his brothers and sisters when they were babies. Bébé’s family lived in poverty in Cacem, a dormitory town described by one travel journalist as “an awful place, sharing neither the beauties of the countryside nor the cultural richness of a real city“.
Impoverished and without any hope, they left their kids to the care of their grandmother. Ilda, or “The Little Lady” as Bebe affectionately calls her was left with four kids to take care of. But she couldn’t handle this of this by herself. She raised them until Bebe was 12, but then she sought for help.
Ilda found what she was looking for at Casa do Gaiato. It is a shelter run by the church, and it helps orphans and homeless kids. Most of the people would find living in a shelter with unknown people as a boy really hard, but not Bebe.
He learned to write and read, got many friends and had time to play football with kids his age during the day. Casa do Gaiato “was the best thing ever happened” to him.
“Growing up in Gaiato was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said. “It made me who I am. Everyone I met at Casa do Gaiato helped make me a better person.”
When you see him play, look at his legs, Not just for the sheer joy of his speed and dribbling, but because he has Gaiato tattooed there.
First time in his life this kid had some stability. Food on the table every day, school, friends, and of course football.
He played either on a pitch with bumps and weeds sprouting from the dirt, or on a concrete tennis court. This wasn’t the fancy football of renewed Benfica, Sporting or Porto academies. This wasn’t even the football “ordinary” kids played after school. This was pure old-school street football, like in the old days.
In Gaiato life went day by day, and little Tiago got two things that will make him famous – football career and his name. His older brother named him “Bebe” which means baby in Portuguese, and as he stood out from the rest of the kids he started to play for amateur side Loures.
And from there, in Casa do Gaiato, Bebe went to the remote Bosnian town of Foča. This happened to be his ticket to greatness.
40 goals among Bosnian mountains
It was May 2009, and 19-year old Bebe and seven other boys from Casa do Gaiato were made up into a team. Portugal’s well known CAIS association, an association that publishes street news and involves itself in all kinds of activities to help homeless and impoverished people sent Casa do Gaiato team to Bosnia and Herzegovina.
They were representing Portugal at the second European Street Football Festival in the town of Foča. Alongside them, there were teams from Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, UK, Poland, Ukraine, Romania, Czechia, Germany, Montenegro, Hungary, Turkey, North Macedonia, France, and Ireland.
Portugal’s team didn’t progress to the second round, but one boy impressed. Even though Bebe later confessed that he thought of the tournament as “a joke“, he scored 40 goals in 6 games. This statistic may fool you into thinking Bebe was looking only for his goals in this tournament, but it was not in any case like that.
CAIS director Henrique Pinto recalls Bebe as a hard-working playmaker who always looked to pass to his teammates.
“He was a very simple sort of guy who did not have much. But he made a huge impression at the tournament. In terms of ability, he was the team. But he did not try to keep the ball. He involved the others. That is the image I have of him“, Pinto said.
In Loures he was the top player, but even though his performance in Foča was sensational, no teams wanted him. However, in the end, Estrela da Amadora, team playing in Portuguese third division saw an opportunity and signed him.
The man who believed
If you think joining Estrela da Amadora was an easy decision for Bebe, you’re wrong. He was hesitant because he didn’t want to leave his home at Casa do Gaiato, and wages in the club didn’t allow him to rent an apartment.
The club was an economic disaster by then. Bebe was the only player they paid, and his wages were €300 per month. To put it into perspective an average monthly salary in Portugal at that time was €1.513.
The training ground and stadium of his new club were far away. He needed a two-hour ride by bus to get to his training session. In the end, young winger sad yes, and for the first time in his life he played organized football at the semi-pro level.
He still lived in his shelter, but someone noticed his talent and decided to help him out. Goncalo Reis was a football enthusiast who just decided to become a football agent. He offered his services to this 19-year-old kid and helped him out in all sorts of ways. Reis would buy him boots, clothes, and cleats and drive him to training. He also talked to him and nurtured his work ethics and will to succeed.
“I didn’t want him to look out of place and feel small. The trip to training every day was not easy,” Reis said. “It showed his dedication. After training, he would go to the shelter and help with the cleaning and things. They all pray at the end of the day. It is an obligation”, said Reis in one of his interviews.
If it wasn’t for this man, who recognized Bebe’s talent and helped him out in the toughest year of his career, first-year, maybe Tiago Manuel Dias Correia wouldn’t be a known name. Maybe he would be just another Casa de Gaiato kid who has an ordinary job and ordinary life.
But when the help was most needed, Reis just pushed the boy a little bit. A couple of times he drove him to training. Bought him a couple of meals, talked to him, and bought him some equipment.
Bebe needed someone to stand behind him for just a couple of months. Then, in just a couple of weeks, everything just exploded.
From €300 not paid, to Manchester United in a couple of months
In his only season with Estrela Amadora Bebe netted 4 times in 26 games, but this stat doesn’t give you the right perspective of how important he was to the team.
With Bebe on board, Estrela was in contention for promotion. They were second in the league with five games to go, but couldn’t pay his wages anymore.
Reis helped his new client to get contract terminated, and than Estrela da Amadora died. Quite literally. They lost the last five games, finished 10th in the league and then disbanded due to financial crisis. Up to this date, the club doesn’t exist.
Reis than went to work and offered Bebe to a bunch of Portuguese clubs, but no one wanted him. No one wanted to gamble with a kid who played 26 games in the third division, and never had a day of professional football training before that.
But Vitoria Guimaraes came to the rescue. They signed Bebe at the start of the preparations for the 2010/11 season. The new boy had just a couple of training sessions with the new team, and he impressed immediately. His footwork was brilliant. his speed was phenomenal. He lacked some finesse, but nevertheless he broke into starting 11.
In a twist of fate, he wasn’t destined to ever play a competitive game for Vitoria. After scoring 5 times in 6 games, a word about new Portuguese wunderkind spread quickly. Vitoria managed to offer him a new contract with a €9 million release clause, and all of a sudden “Marca” wrote that Real Madrid wanted to buy this kid!
To remind you, that was a time Kaka and Cristiano Ronaldo operated on the wings of the club from Madrid. This didn’t happen, but as we told you at the start of this story, Bebe signed for Manchester United at the beginning of August!
Mendes, Queriroz or Ferguson – someone made it happen
“It was an amazing feeling because it was something I never expected to happen. I was surprised by the news – I thought it was a joke. It was a week until I believed everything that was happening to me“, Bebe said in a later interview. It took a while for him to start believing what was happening.
“Then I realized 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.”
How the hell this happened? It turns out that Jorge Mendes spotted Bebe, and somehow recommended him to Manchester United. To this day Sir Alex Ferguson claims that his assistant manager Carlos Queiroz recommended Bebe to him, but experienced manager denies that.
But in 2010, everyone was happy with this signing. Jose Mourinho was the coach of Real Madrid, and Ferguson later said that The Special One confessed that Real Madrid wanted this 20-year-old prodigy. People in the club was so confident that Bebe had what it takes, that great Sir Alex broke one of his rules for this kid.
“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.”
This was the first and only time Fergie signed a player that he never before saw. He was introduced to Bebe before signing a contract, and he never saw him play, even on a video.
United paid Portuguese winger’s release clause, and all of a sudden a kid that has been living in a homeless shelter a couple of months before that was worth millions. Not only that, he would get to play with the likes of Edwin van der Sar, Nemanja Vidić, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Patrice Evra, Wayne Rooney, and Gary Neville.
Anderson took young Bebe under his wing, and Nani, another Cape Verde native, also helped new kid a lot. Even Sir Alex rented Bebe apartment near his house in Manchester.
All of a sudden Bebe went from not getting his €300 from Estrella Amadora to having £17,000 per week and a hefty £500,000 signing on fee.
Two goals, 337 minutes and a song from the fans
A month after his arrival, Bebe was selected to the 25-man squad for Champions League. He replaced cult hero Park Ji-Sung at 74th minute of League Cup tie with Scunthorpe for his first minutes in United’s #33 shirt. It was the start of October when he replaced his best friend in the team, Anderson, in goalless tie with Sunderland for first Premier League minutes.
But a match against Wolves was the most important match of his four-year Manchester United career. His first start came against Wolverhampton in the fourth round of League Cup, and he went from brilliant to grotesque.
In 55th minute he raced down the right flank, went past George Elokobi and crossed the ball badly. However, it tricked Wayne Hennesy, and just went over the line before Wolves centre back cleared it.
Linesman gave it, and Manchester United took the lead. He crossed it nicely to Federico Macheda, who missed a golden opportunity, but the rest of the game was bad for Bebe. He crossed the ball very badly a couple of times, and in the end, Sir Alex substituted him. Chicharito came in for Bebe in 81st minute, and eventually scored the winning goal.
It went off really good for former homeless shelter inhabitant in England. He even scored a goal in 3:0 win over Bursaspor in Champions League!
But eventually, he didn’t have what was needed for this level of football, and from this perspective, he knows he should have tried more.
“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.“
But it was just a step too big for him. He never played on an even similar level to this. His only league games before arriving in Manchester were 26 games for Estrella Amadora in Portuguese third division.
“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. 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“, Bebe said, and he was right.
He was quickly adopted into the team and at first, fans liked him. They had a great experience with young Portuguese players in recent years: Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, just to name a few.
But in the end, he didn’t have what it takes at the time. His few performances like the one against non-league Crawley Town didn’t impress, to that extent that Man Utd fans made a song about him!
“If Bebé scores, we’re on the pitch,” they said, and it wasn’t really fair. He scored twice in just 337 minutes on the pitch for the club.
Nomadic years and a dream come true
In search of first-team football, he went on loan to Besiktas, but suffered a cruciate ligament injury and played only 4 games for the Istanbul “eagles”.
Then he returned to the homeland. In 2012/13 he played a fairly good season for Rio Ave, scoring twice in 19 appearances, but in 2013/14 he impressed.
Another loan, another Portuguese club. Now he was wearing Pacos Fereira jersey and became the best player of the team. In 39 games that season he scored 14 times from midfield and finished the season as the seventh-best goalscorer in the league. He helped his team secure top-flight football, by scoring a goal in the second leg of relegation play-offs against Desportivo das Aves.
His impressive form didn’t go unnoticed, and Benfica came calling. Remember that poet from the start of this story? Let’s go back to him for a second. On arrival in Lisbon, Byron wrote:
“Oh Christ! it is a goodly sight to see/What heaven hath done for this delicious land!/What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!/What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!“
Bebe wasn’t so poetic, but this call was a dream come true for him. Growing up in the shelter just outside of Lisabon, he supported Benfica. And now he wore the red shirt he loved.
“I am a ‘Benfiquista’, it was a dream to play there because all my friends and my family supported Benfica. I did not sleep that day, I spent the whole day awake.“
It started great, in his first game as a Benfica player he snapped up his first trophy. Benfica played Bebe’s former club Rio Ave in Portugal’s Supercup, and he replaced Eduardo Salvio in 106th minute of the game.
After goalless 120 minutes, the game went to penalties. Bebe scored in the shootout, and got his medal!
But he ended up playing just 6 times, once in the league, and went on loan to Spanish second-tier club Cordoba next season. He did ok there, but in 2015/16 finally found his home.
The kid from the streets in the club of the people
“The best fans I’ve played in front of. 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.”, said Bebe in 2018 when he penned a three-year contract with Rayo Vallecano.
He came here for the first time in 2015, played 37 games in a season that saw Rayo relegated to Segunda. After a year on loan there, he joined Eibar. He was in the Basque country for a season and a half, and then rejoined Rayo. First on loan for a half of a season, and then he made his move permanent.
While Rayo bounces from Primera to Segunda from season to season, Bebe continues to be one of their best players. And it’s a match made in heaven.
A kid that rose from the poverty, and came a long way from his Casa do Gaiato homeless shelter came to Madrid’s suburb, to a left-wing club whose captain Roberto Trashorras regularly helps out in neighborhood’s homeless shelter.
Rayo’s left-wing ultras often put on anti-racist, anti-fascist, and anti-commercialization messages on their stand. Club and its fans are regularly involved in charity work, and they are labeled as “the last neighborhood club” in Spain.
So the kid from the neighborhood rose from poverty, reached the Theatre of Dreams and found his home in the last neighborhood club.
What a story, huh?