By Richard Martin
MADRID (Reuters) - Portuguese winger Bebe has played for Manchester United and Benfica but when it comes to passionate fans he believes no-one can rival Rayo Vallecano, the La Liga club where he now plays who are regarded as a bastion of working class pride.
In 2015 the club from the Madrid neighbourhood of Vallecas made headlines for paying the rent of a local supporter who had been evicted from her home in the wake of Spain’s economic crisis.
They also gained international recognition for releasing an away strip bearing the rainbow flag in support of LGBT rights.
Given that Bebe grew up in a orphanage and recalls playing youth football matches without eating, it is easy to see why he identifies with the proud yet humble club.
"Rayo is about survival," he told Reuters in an interview before Saturday’s game against La Liga leaders and champions Barcelona. "The club is a family, it belongs to the people on the streets. They have a unique set of supporters. More and more people are discovering Rayo now, but the club should never change."
Bebe's upbringing drew worldwide attention when he joined United in 2010, but he wants to set the record straight.
"I was never abandoned," he said.
"I lived with my mother but she wasn't around much and as I lived in a problematic neighbourhood my grandmother decided I would be better off in the orphanage. She said I'd go there for two weeks, I stayed for 10 years.
"People think going to an orphanage is the worst thing that could happen but those were the happiest moments of my life."
It was at the Casa do Gaiato shelter, which houses 150 children, where he honed his footballing skills.
"Everyone lived for football. We played football every day, all the time. We had a great team, some players who were as good as or better than me. But they didn’t have the mentality," he said.
Bebe’s breakthrough came when the orphanage represented Portugal at the European Street Football Festival in Bosnia.
A year later, still an unknown in European football he was involved in the strangest transfer story of the year when he signed for Premier League aristocrats United.
"At first I thought it was crazy and it could all be a lie," he recalled of his 10-million-euro move from Vitoria de Guimaraes. "I knew my life would change forever. A lot of things went through my head but I wanted to be a man and adapt to the situation I was in. It was a unique opportunity which I couldn’t say no to, any player would accept it."
Looking back, Bebe admits he made the transition a little too soon.
"I 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," he said.
"I didn’t have the right education. I went from a club in the third division to the best team in the world and thought what on earth am I doing here? I needed more people close to me to advise me."
"FERGUSON UNDERSTOOD ME"
Seven first team appearances and two goals are the legacy of Bebe's stay at Manchester United, as well as the honour of getting to know Alex Ferguson.
"He's the best coach I've had, a very good person, someone who understood me very well and where I had come from. He helped me a lot, he even rented me one of his apartments," Bebe says of the manager who transformed United's fortunes and recently recovered from a near-fatal brain haemorrhage.
"I was very sad when I heard he was ill, many people love him but you can only appreciate how good a person he is and how he wants to help everyone when you get to know him."
He also fathered a son, named Liam, now seven years old.
"He has been to Portugal and I go to Manchester. He supports whichever team his father plays for."
By that logic, Bebe's son could support up to 10 teams, so varied has his father's career been.
"It’s been difficult," he said of the upheaval which has taken him to Turkey, England and England and Spain.
After a recent spell at Eibar, he returned to Rayo last January, helping them win promotion back to La Liga.
"It’s better to have your feet in one place, although it has never been my choice. Life is like that, it has taught me to go looking for chances and to take them. That’s what I’ve done but now I'm happy to stay here."
"You have to know where you are and not think about where you were," he added. "I have to forget the past and realise I'm at Rayo and give everything to Rayo. I live in the now. Rayo is the club that is putting food on the table so it’s important I give everything to them."
(Reporting by Richard Martin; editing by David Stamp)