A recent incident etched on the minds of many was the image of Mark Clattenburg stood over Pepe, showing his disgust at the histrionics of the Portuguese defender. The English referee had enough and could simply only look on and dart out his tongue as Pepe writhed around on the floor in this year’s Champions League final.
Understandably, it’s an image that stays with people when it comes to Pepe. Just like the time he hoofed a Getafe player who was already on the ground, or that time in El Clasico when he clutched his face and fell to the floor. The latter has happened on numerous occasions. You could argue sometimes people’s perception of Pepe is justified. Often, when available to the wider audience, Pepe can do something to irritate even the most casual football fan. But it’s balanced out by the irritation of those who know the real Pepe. Those who do have seen a world class defender.
The real Pepe was the one who strode out of defence for Portugal against Poland with grace and purpose; the one who attacked the ball with no regard for an opponent, with the single thought on his mind that he must win every 50/50; and the one who helped steer his team to their seventh major semi-final and a fourth in the last five EuropeanChampionships. Pepe has featured in three of those Euros for his nation, while also notching up two World Cups.
But no matter how hard you try to tell some people about the imperious Pepe, he who has been the most stable presence in Real Madrid’s defence over recent years, it’s his misdemeanours that they prefer to focus on. It’s why Pepe will retire and be remembered by few as a top class defender. They will probably talk about his centre-back partner for RealMadrid, Sergio Ramos, more fondly, despite Pepe bailing him out time and again for the Spaniard’s lack of focus. His Portuguese defensive partner, Ricardo Carvalho, will even go out with higher praise.
It’s unfair because for all the success he has experienced at Real Madrid, he goes unheralded as a key component in those triumphs. It’s forgotten how he stood up in the biggest of games, read the most fearsome attacking vehicles with incredible precision, and stubbed out any on-form threat. Pepe, on his most focused days, is a colossal performer. He reads the game with a coldness, an ability to shut out emotional aspects and focus on the task in hand. His interceptions and tackles are precise, packed with energy and effortless execution. He’s a naturally instinctive presence in a backline and has tunnel vision when it comes to stopping any threats. It’s his sole purpose, one he thrives upon.
He’s even managed to nullify the threat of one of his club mates, he’s been that strong in recent years. Raphael Varane is now23-years-old and at the end of his tether when it comes to nailing down a regular place in Madrid’s backline. It’s not through lack of faith in his ability that he hasn’t been picked, it’s simply that Pepe has been there. Ramos is the designated leader in the dressing room so his place his essentially assured. It should be Pepe hanging on for dear life to his role. Instead, he hasn’t. He’s been fully justified in his place, and Varane has rightly waited.The Frenchman has suffered a series of injuries and that’s obviously not helped his case, but Pepe warrants the spot and has come out on top in a battle between the pair when both fit.
The Portuguese’s fitness shows no signs of dropping off too. He’s as quick as ever, and still manages to charge around with aplomb for 90 minutes. Few 33-year-olds are as athletic and look as fresh as the day they arrived on the scene.
It’s unfortunate then, that an injury could rule Pepe out of Portugal’s biggest game in recent history. And calling him as significant a loss as Cristiano Ronaldo would be is entirely justified. “At certain times, everyone has to assume their role as leaders. They're the right arms of the coach, Pepe has been that,” said Portugal’s coach Fernando Santos.
That’s right. A leader. Not a pantomime villain, nor a thug. A leader. Those who know Pepe best call him that. Those who don’t? Well if they don’t see it now, they might never do.