Despite eventually learning self-control, Pepe is certainly no angel. But as he leaves Real Madrid, a touch sadly, it is time to acknowledge just how good a player he became
The very last time Pepe put on his Real Madrid kit and ran on to the pitch, it wasn’t to play. Képler Laveran Lima Ferreira joined team-mates in celebrations at the Santiago Bernabéu on Sunday evening wearing all white, knowing that he will not be back. The day before, he had been left out of the squad for the Champions League final at the Millennium Stadium; the night after, he finally confirmed what had long been an open secret: “It’s clear that I won’t be continuing at Madrid,” he said. There was sadness as he said it. There was a touch of bitterness, too. Ten years on, he was going.
At 34 and into the final year of his contract, Pepe had publicly said he would wait for Madrid “until the end”, but eventually gave up in April. He wanted to stay and asked for a two-year deal; Madrid offered only one. Most of his stuff has been in storage for the past two months, shipped back to Portugal, awaiting his next destination, which appears likely to be France. He knew it would end but it was not supposed to be like this. Everyone else knew it too, even as he kept silent – not least because he kept silent, in fact. He was the only player, with Fábio Coentrão, nowhere to be seen at the club’s pre-final media day.
The following night, party packed up, Pepe said that Madrid’s treatment of him had “not been right”. His complaints, made on the radio station Cadena Cope, have changed the atmosphere, ending things in a way that few expected, but beyond that immediate irritation, there will surely be gratitude for the past 10 years. Pepe said that Madrid had not protected him amid accusations of tax evasion; admitted that, unusually among the squad, he had connected better with Rafa Benítez than with Zidane; and expressed his disappointment that no one from the board had called him after he had cracked his ribs against Atlético Madrid on 8 April.
As it turned out, that was the last time he ever played for Madrid. Before he had been forced to withdraw, he had scored the goal that had put Madrid into the lead. He celebrated with a raised finger, Madrid badge held between his teeth. That image felt appropriate; fans at the Bernabéu have long appreciated him, celebrated him. Team-mates, too. When Pepe arrived from Porto for €30m, one question was asked repeatedly: “Who is Pepe?!” He leaves with three league titles, three European Cups and having played 334 games. Only five foreigners ever played more than the Brazilian-born Portugal defender.