From orphanage to Old Trafford: the making of United's £7m striker

The Portuguese 20-year-old Bebe is a remarkable rags-to-riches success

The image to the right speaks louder than words about the remarkable story of the striker known Bebe, who, as his friends attested yesterday, is still coming to terms with the fact that Sir Alex Ferguson has just spent £7m on acquiring his services.

Most individuals on that kind of career trajectory and who arrive at a place like Manchester United spend their teenage years cocooned in an academy, while their clubs await the arrival of the scouts – and a big pay-day. Most are usually on their way by the age of 19. However, that's how old Bebe was when he was pictured larking around amid the team of boys and girls selected to represent Portugal in a European football festival for the socially disadvantaged last year.

Nobody held out too many hopes either for him or his team, who had been thrown together at the last minute to play in the streetfootballworld tournament at Foca, in Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2009. But it took less than a week for Bebe – full name Tiago Manuel Dias Correia – to signal that he was the one all the scouts had somehow managed to miss. His side did not progress beyond the second group stage of the tournament, but he scored 40 goals in six matches.

Portugal then had to decide whether to put him in the national squad for the Homeless World Cup in Milan two months later, thus disappointing one of the players already selected. The homeless football movement believes that its tournament is about much more than pure talent so, behind gritted teeth you imagine, they left him at home.

Ferguson's reluctance to follow suit stores up the prospect of one of football's more authentic rags-to-riches stories if Bebe – who is believed to have taken that name ever since his older brother gave it to him as a child – flourishes at Old Trafford. Like his new team-mate Nani, he was born to impoverished Cape Verdean parents who lived on the outskirts of Lisbon, though at the age of 10 they placed him in the Casa do Gaiato de Santo Antao do Tojal, in nearby Loures, an institution which cares for children whose families cannot afford to raise them. He settled in well, joined the local junior side and it was there that he was spotted by Third Division side Estrela de Amadora.

The whereabouts of his parents was unclear yesterday, though life without them does not appear to have affected him. "The main aspect of his personality is that he is always smiling and happy," said Goncalo Sequeira dos Santos, who manages Portugal's National Homeless World Cup team and who encountered Bebe when hurriedly pulling together the side for that Bosnian tournament. He certainly flourished for Amadora and they sold him to top-flight Vitoria de Guimaraes this summer, when he started scoring in pre-season with a freedom reminiscent of last year in Bosnia. Ferguson's attention was then drawn to the striker by his former assistant Carlos Queiroz, the Portugal national coach.

Given that he had only been at Vitoria for five weeks, United could have saved themselves paying the €9m (£7.4m) break clause in his contract by moving a little earlier, though the club's chief executive, David Gill, indicated last night that they had become aware of his potential only in the last seven days. "He's a player we've been following, but he really came on the scene in the last week or so," Gill said. "We looked at him, spoke to a number of people about him and then went out and secured the deal yesterday."

That means Bebe has managed to secure the move of a lifetime on the basis of pre-season form – he has scored five goals in six friendlies – though doubtless Real Madrid's interest will have featured in United's thinking. That the Spanish sports paper Marca splashed with news of his move to the Bernabeu on the very day United stole in will delight Ferguson. The Vitoria president, Emilio Macedo, claimed they had received offers from four major European clubs. He also suggested that United had offered a possible loan of one of their players in the future.

Jorge Paixao, Bebe's coach at Amadora, said that his tough upbringing had helped hone the 6ft 2in striker's talents "He's a player who is the fruit of street football," Paixao said yesterday. "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.

"He improvises very well, because he has quality, and he has a set of characteristics that are difficult to find in a single footballer: he's tall, he's good in the air, he's technically gifted and he's very fast."

Such is the speed of the deal – which is subject only to the player passing a medical at Carrington – that it is not even clear where Bebe operates best. He has been described by United as a striker, though several observers in Portugal yesterday suggested he was an attacking midfielder, more of a United requirement. Gill dismissed any suggestion that United would be sending him out on loan.

The player, who is known to call frequently at the home which raised him, wanted to use his move to raise the profile of the homeless football network yesterday. "I am very happy. I had the dream of playing, one day, for a major club. That dream has come true. Football can change lives, very much," he said.

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