There has been a fairly peripheral figure at Real Madrid in the preseason so far. A veteran who is now one of the longest serving members of the squad. A footballer who has captained the side for the club’s two friendly games without too much fuss or comment.
After a tumultuous three years under the reign of Jose Mourinho, Pepe would be delighted if that quiet life continues in the campaign to come.
Pepe has one of the most unfortunate reputations in La Liga, as an uncontrolled, unstable presence on the football field. Even the defender’s own supporters urge the player on with chants of “kill him!” during in-game confrontations with opposition defenders.
Unfortunately, this reputation has been well-earned. The Portuguese player attacked Javier Casquero in 2009 in a shocking moment during a Getafe match and had to be dragged from the field by his teammates. It was a moment of madness that Pepe admitted had forced him to rethink his future in the game.
It felt that Mourinho was exploiting the savage animal instinct that lay deep within Pepe. During the antagonistic and fractious early Clasicos of Mourinho’s spell in the Spanish capital, he deployed Pepe as an attack dog.
The Bernabeu boss knew that his Real Madrid could not outplay Barcelona. Instead, the strategy was to outfight them. Pepe, a once graceful centre-back, became an ugly, brutish midfielder, hurling himself around the pitch, snarling and stamping, seemingly lost in a red mist.
During the final months at Real Madrid, Mourinho betrayed his player, picking the young Raphael Varane ahead of him in the centre of defence. When Pepe dared to speak out about the treatment being dished out to the exiled Iker Casillas, Mourinho responded with a public rebuke. “It’s not easy for a player to see how he’s outperformed by a 19-year-old kid,” said the current Chelsea boss in a press conference.
Pepe’s form was also partly to blame for losing his first-team spot. The defender appeared to have lost confidence in his own abilities. The Real Madrid man has been far from one of the best stoppers in the world since joining the club in 2007. Despite Varane being the inexperienced rookie, the Frenchman was better equipped mentally to deal with the big matches.
What is most sad about this state of affairs is that off the field Pepe is as calm, charming and cheerful as they come. The contrast between the placid, almost permanently smiling figure to the player who stamped on Leo Messi’s hand is Dr. Jekyll and a particularly irate Godzilla.
Without the stirring—his former manager would say “motivating”—presence of Mourinho around, Pepe may have a chance to rebuild a reputation under Carlo Ancelotti. In addition, Raul Albiol's departure has removed a competitor for the centre-back spot in Madrid. Plus, the absence of Sergio Ramos due to a long holiday and an injury to Varane mean that Pepe has been able to start both preseason friendlies, wearing the captain’s armband.
Pepe was and can be a fine defender again. If the Portuguese stopper can work with Ancelotti to remove his red mist, the Madrid defender can be born again and no longer be known as one of La Liga’s most unstable stars.