Nothing damages a footballer's reputation more than becoming a punchline. One hideous season at Manchester United has done more to David Moyes' standing in English football than the preceding 11 seasons of largely admirable toil. Jason Lee will forever have a pineapple on his head, even though the fruit in question was lopped off long ago. And while it remains to be seen what will happen to Steven Gerrard's place in history, at least outside the red half of Liverpool, it's hard not to worry for him. Literally slipping after you've guaranteed you won't slip. That's the kind of thing that people remember.
And then there's Bebé, who has now left English football behind, at least for the time being. His time in Manchester saw him progress from "Bebé? Who?" through to "Bebé! Ha!" and he will soon be remembered largely as "Bebé! Oh yeah! What was that all about?" Some players at least get a shot at achieving respect before tripping over their own heels; Bebé never really stood a chance.
Understandable, of course. Bought for a reported £7.4m in August 2010, it was quickly established that Alex Ferguson had never seen him play football, even on video. The official line was that former United coach Carlos Quieroz had passed along a recommendation, but the sticky fingerprints of super-agent Jorge Mendes on the deal led some to draw different, shadier conclusions. It then emerged that Bebé had in fact been available on a free transfer just five months earlier — in effect, his club Vitória de Guimarães had 'flipped' the player — and that only 40% of the fee went to the club.
The transfer was eventually investigated by Portuguese police, and Mendes, Manchester United and Bebé's former agent were all questioned by anti-corruption officers. (All parties involved denied any wrongdoing.) As for Bebé himself, his arrival in Manchester had caused confusion, a fair amount of unpleasant snickering at the very idea of United signing a homeless street-kid, and an order from his new manager to cut off his dreadlocks.
Not the most auspicious of beginnings, and his initial performances only reinforced the sense that something peculiar had gone on. There are some players who take to the high-level professional game with an ease and a grace that suggests they were born to be footballers; Bebé took to the Premier League like he was born to play lawn bowls. One performance in particular, against Wolverhampton Wanderers, stands as perhaps the single worst display of crossing since the Mongol invasions of Japan.
So he wasn't very good, and he didn't play very often. Having spent 2010-11 on the fringes of the United squad, he spent most of the next three seasons on loan, first with Beşiktaş (where he did his cruciates after just four games) and then with Rio Ave and Paços de Ferreira back in his homeland. In total, he made just seven competitive appearances for United, all in his first season, and scored just two goals.
But that he leaves as something between a mystery and a punchline is, while perhaps inevitable, also somewhat unfair. After all, though he may be the centre of the jokes, very little of what's happened is his fault. He didn't ask Manchester United to buy him, and what young footballer is going to turn such a move down? And there's never been any suggestion that he personally profited from the transfer to United (apart from the financial and educational rewards that come with the gig, of course).
As was widely reported at the time of his purchase, Bebé's severely disrupted upbringing saw him learn to play on a concrete tennis court. Raised first by his grandparents and then in a series of homeless shelters, he never actually participated in the Homeless World Cup, as was claimed at the time, though he may have appeared for the representative side of the Portuguese Homeless FA. Where some of his Manchester United colleagues had been learning their trade at Old Trafford since the age of nine, he only made his way into the professional game at the age of seventeen.
And since moving to United, he's managed to avoid drowning in the manner of so many players who find themselves thrown into deeper waters than they can handle. Despite being largely ignored by his parent club, despite a serious injury lay-off, he's done all that any young footballer can be expected to do, and improved season after season. In 2013/14 he he scored 14 goals for Paços de Ferreira, helped them avoid relegation, was named player of year and even found himself named in some of the more excitable parts of the Portuguese press as an outside shot for the World Cup. This, in turn, has earned him a move to Portuguese champions and Europa League finalists Benfica, who are quite a good football team.
In short, he's gone from being abandoned by his parents as a child, to amateur football at age 17, to the best team in his country at age 24, a progression that looks, shorn of context, almost Disney. Admittedly, the Hollywood version of his life would probably have a happier ending to his time in Manchester, as well as see him making the big move for reasons less murky, more romantic. "Alex? It's your cousin, Marvin Ferguson. You know that new winger you're looking for?"
But as an object lesson in making the most of whatever life throws at you, it's hard to look at Bebé himself with anything other than respect. His circumstances and the actions of others may have made him forever a punchline, at least in England. But it would take a cold heart not to be pleased that, along the way, he appears to have managed to make himself a footballer as well.