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Unpalatable or misunderstood? The real Pepe by those who know him best
In collaboration with The Athletic, BT Sport takes a closer look at the iconic Portuguese defender ahead of Porto’s Champions League quarter-final second leg against Chelsea.
Pepe’s reputation precedes him. The indefatigable Portuguese defender is enjoying a stellar swansong at Porto, but the 38-year-old is still considered one of the most divisive players in the game.
From head-butting Thomas Muller and stepping on Lionel Messi’s hand to attacking Getafe’s Javier Casquero in a particularly unedifying demonstration of his rambunctiousness in 2009, Pepe for some is simply unpalatable.
His detractors would point to various counts of play-acting, petulance and a perceived lack of sportsmanship to support their case, but the de facto master of the dark arts is viewed altogether differently by those who know him best.
Speaking to The Athletic ahead of Porto’s Champions League clash with Chelsea, exclusively live on BT Sport, those who have worked with him paint a picture of an introspective and introverted character. Could a false dichotomy be at play?
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Born Kepler Laveran Lima Ferreira (after German astronomer Johannes Keplar and French Nobel Prize recipient Charles Louis Alphonse Lavera) in the corner of north-east Brazil in 1983, the man who would become known around the world simply as Pepe quickly developed a prodigious aptitude for the sport which saw him depart his homeland for Portugal as a child.
The prevailing narrative around Europe’s most enduring ‘hard man’ speaks of an invulnerable matador, but The Athletic report that Pepe was raised by a strong maternal figure alongside three sisters and the man who would become the bedrock of some of Europe’s most celebrated club’s defences slept in his parents’ bed until he was 17 years old.
Even as a teenager, he would spend long, lazy hours by his mother’s side, stroking her hair.
“Something told me that I was going to spend a lot of time away from her,” he told Portuguese newspaper Expresso.
His hunch was prophetic. His big break came soon after, when representatives of Portuguese club Maritimo snapped him up on a speculative scouting trip to South America.
After three years in Madeira he ended up at Porto, who had just won the Champions League under Jose Mourinho in 2003. It was a big step up in terms of pressure and responsibility, but he soon became the linchpin of the Dragões’ defence.
“I remember games in which he was the only real centre-back,” Brazilian team-mate Assuncao tells The Athletic. “He was only a kid but he was able to marshal the defence all on his own. From that point, I never doubted that he would go far.”
It didn’t take long for Real Madrid to come calling after Pepe helped Porto to back-to-back Primeira Liga titles, but it wasn’t a seamless transition for the €30 million signing.
The Bernabeu had become something of a graveyard for high-profile centre-backs, with the likes of Walter Samuel, Jonathan Woodgate and even Fabio Cannavaro all failing to fill the void left by the inimitable Fernando Hierro.
“I came from a club that was organised, tactically,” he told Expresso. “What I found at Madrid was chaos. After 30 minutes, the game had been torn apart: we were always one-versus-one at the back. I turned to Fabio Cannavaro and said, ‘Fabio, you cover!’ He replied, ‘No, no. It’s every man for himself here’.”
I promise you, he was one of the most calm, most coherent people I ever shared a changing room with
- Miguel Torres on Pepe
Slowly but surely, Pepe fortified a porous defence and convinced the sceptics of his worth. One man who never doubted him was Miguel Torres, a young right-back in the squad at that time.
“It was hard for any player who came in to reach Hierro’s level,” he says. “But I thought Pepe was one of the best signings of that period. It didn’t take long for him to prove that the club had got it right.”
He soon developed a reputation as a fearsome, win-at-all-costs defender, but he has never been far from controversy, usually pertaining to his on-field behaviour.
There is plenty of supporting evidence underpinning his hatchet man image. The most damning evidence was provided in April 2009 when had to be escorted off the pitch by team-mate Iker Casillas in a La Liga match against Getafe after twice aiming kicks at the prone Javi Casquero and striking Juan Albin in the face.
Reflecting on the staggering incident, he showed more than a glimpse of his considered side.
“I’m devastated,” he said. “I lost control for a few minutes. I’ve seen the replays and I don’t recognise myself. I don’t have the words to describe how I feel. The biggest punishment that I could receive is what I’m feeling now.”
Such was his shame that he lost all his enthusiasm for the game and even considered hanging up his boots for good.
In a world where judgements are instant and lasting, Pepe has become synonymous with aggression and a figure of ridicule because of that night in Madrid, but those who played with him contradict that narrative.
“Pepe always played every game with great intensity,” added Torres. “He never wanted to lose, even in training. Honestly, I believe that he got it wrong that day with Casquero, with the way he reacted, but I promise you, he was one of the most calm, most coherent people I ever shared a changing room with.”
For international team-mate Eder, Pepe’s on-field persona can be separated from his day-to-day personality.
“When he walks onto the field, it’s warrior mode,” Eder tells The Athletic. “He fights to win and will do anything it takes. Obviously, that means he can go in quite hard sometimes, but that’s his job.
“He’s the same way in training. When you’re up against him, he wants you to know that he’s there and that he’s going to make your life difficult. That’s just what he’s like.
“But Pepe, the person, is completely different to the Pepe you see in the pitch. He’s an introvert. Pepe doesn’t speak much; he likes to keep quiet, be in his own world.
“He’s not the kind of guy who wants to be the centre of attention. Sometimes you don’t even notice him in a room. He’s very, very calm. He’s really… zen.”
Twelve years after his moment of madness, the experienced defender has curbed some of his worst excesses and is still operating at the highest level. He is preparing to captain Porto in their quarter-final second leg against Chelsea and remains a mainstay of Portugal’s set-up ahead of the summer's European Championships.
His upbringing coupled with the testimony of those closest to him suggest that his case could be another example of perception trumping reality. What is for certain is that there’s more to him that meets the eye.
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