Tiago Manuel Dias Correia wrapped his emaciated frame inside an old, odorous rug. As the ten-year-old laid his head on a makeshift pillow, his stomach rumbled at a deprivation of food; his back ached from sleeping rough on the concrete of Loures, a remote city on the outskirts of Lisbon.
Tiago’s only respite from those sources of torment, until he fell asleep, was fantasy. And so he fantasised. In the homeless pre-teen’s recurring mirage, he envisioned himself as a professional footballer, illuminating for one of the most prestigious clubs in the world à la Luis Figo, the Portuguese icon whose image consistently decorated the newspapers he used for additional protection against the overnight chill.
When I look at what’s happened, it’s like sport’s version of Cinderella. All the sacrifices have proved worth it.
The life of Bebe, as he had been known since his brith in Cacem to destitute Cape-Verdean immigrants, improved considerably when he moved into the Casa do Gaiato shelter shortly afterwards. It ensured he spent his teenage years blessed by the comparative luxuries of regular food, warmth, health care and an education. It also afforded him the opportunity to play football for a local amateur team with whom one of the orphanage’s leaders had ties.
That leader received a phone call in April 2009. Cais, a charity responsible for publishing the Portuguese equivalent of the Big Issue magazine, had been invited to participate in the second European Street Football Festival, a competition for the present or previously homeless organised by streetfootballworld through FIFA’s Football for Hope movement. They asked if Casa do Gaiato was inhabited by any football enthusiasts. One name instantly sprung to mind.
And so Bebe, along with along with seven other residents of the shelter, headed to Foca, Bosnia-Herzegovina the following month. There, 40 goals in just six matches - coupled with some extravagant, audience-thrilling skills – persuaded Estrela Amadora, a club based in the Portuguese third flight, to add him to their playing staff.
Bebe nonetheless continued to live at the Casa do Gaiato - a testament to his humility - preferring to commute to training sessions and matches. Often deployed on the wing, occasionally up front, he would spend just one campaign with Estrela. It was all he needed to infatuate Vitoria de Guimaraes, who had just finished sixth in the country’s elite division.
But if Bebe’s improbable 13-month transition from street footballer into top-tier professional had been pipedream, it was a mere prelude of what ensued. For following a handful of pre-season games – and a quintet of clinically-dispatched goals - the versatile player was coveted by a who’s who of European colossuses, including Real Madrid and Manchester United. The latter’s manager Sir Alex Ferguson, acting on a persuasive recommendation from his former assistant Carlos Queiroz, the current Portugal coach, moved swiftly to activate a £7.4m release clause in the 1.90m attacker’s two-month-old Vitoria contract.
Bebe, who ten years earlier felt himself fortunate just to have any shirt on his back, would now be carrying one of the most hallowed jerseys in sport. "It is a fairytale when you read about his background," said Ferguson. "Normally you would assess someone over a longer period of time, but other clubs were starting to have a look so we made a quick decision.
It is a fairytale when you read about his background. He’s two-footed, he’s very quick. He’s young and we’re good at young players.
"He doesn’t speak any English. That’s got to be addressed obviously. But I think the important thing is allowing him to settle at the club. He’s two-footed, he’s very quick, there’s material there. He’s raw material but I’m sure we can work with that. He’s young and we’re good at young players.”
Bebe added: "I am very happy. I remember so many nights sleeping on the streets. When I look at what’s happened, it’s like sport’s version of Cinderella. All the sacrifices have proved worth it. I had the dream of playing for a major club and that dream has come true."
The 20-year-old’s improbable tale will have scouts flocking to next month’s Homeless World Cup in Rio de Janeiro. It will also serve as inspiration for innumerable homeless people across the globe.
As Bebe put it: “Football can change lives.”