Villain or Vigilante?

The World Cup served as another reminder that Pepe is willing to risk a red card just to prove his point


By Robert Mohr | Illustration by Alvar Sirlin

[I]t is April 19, 2009, and a melee has broken out in the penalty area at the north end of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu in Madrid. This is the less chatted about Madrid derby between Real Madrid and its small neighbor Getafe, but Real’s Pepe is being wrestled away from a boiling player riot by Marcelo, who is physically out-matched by his teammate. All the while, a horrified and ashamed Iker Casillas attempts to make peace between the warring parties.

Just moments before, with the score tied at 2–2, the referee had pointed to the spot after Pepe pushed Getafe’s Javier Cosquero in the back as he approached goal. Once Cosquero went down, the Portuguese defender succumbed to a fit of startling rage, aiming two kicks at the striker — the first to the shins and the second to the torso, slashing studs across the Getafe man’s back. A red card is produced immediately, and Pepe rounds on Cosquero again, pushing the howling victim’s face into the grass and stomping repeatedly on the prostrate figure before jabbing another Getafe player in the chin with a swift right hand. The maniacal glare on his face burns frighteningly as Casillas corrals him off the field. The result is a 10-match ban and a permanent stain on Pepe’s reputation.

Chivalry is dead in the land of Cervantes, and wherever Pepe travels in Spain, crowds taunt him with a uniform jeer: asesino — killer. Surprisingly enough, the asesino has only been sent off five times for club and country since the 2011/12 season. That’s still no number to be proud of, but it pales when compared to his preferred center back partner at Real Madrid, Sergio Ramos. Ramos holds the La Liga record for red cards with 19, but it’s Pepe who people think of as Real’s true bad boy. He’s a savant for the dark arts. If there’s a shoving bout, Pepe’s in the center of it. If someone goes down too easily, he’s hovering over them, shouting. Yet if Pepe’s the one clipped, a yelp of anguish will pierce the air as his gangly 6’2 frame crumples into a heap.

Perhaps it’s the hypocrisy that has polluted Pepe’s image most. In a Copa del Rey quarterfinal against Barcelona in 2012, cameras caught Pepe stamping down on the hand of Lionel Messi, who was on the turf from an earlier foul. On this occasion, pleading his innocence was enough to clear him of all charges from the Royal Spanish Football Federation, but he couldn’t escape karma. In the 2013–14 season, in another Clásico, Sergio Busquets tread on Pepe’s face after Barcelona’s second goal, the Madrid defender lying on the ground after a blameless collision with Cesc Fàbregas.

The confusion Pepe feigns when he is booked can appear genuine. By the way he points the finger, you’d think he was a game-cleansing activist. No doubt, the accusations always benefit his own cause, particularly when it comes to defending his allegiance in the Real — Barcelona rivalry.

“We all know what they’re like,” said Pepe, discussing an Andrés Iniesta penalty decision in 2012. “They’re actors.”

The kicks, the dives, the stomps, the acting, and even an alleged snot rocket in the direction of Diego Costa… Why keep a player around who is so detrimental to Real Madrid’s image and performance? It is because, beyond the mask, Pepe possesses a unique aura.

Pepe sent a strong message: mess with any of us, and you mess with me. There are few who would test the durability of that theory. Don’t add Neymar to the list.

Pepe is lean and quick. He covers large distances at breakneck speeds. Powerful and brave, Madrid’s number three towers above opponents in aerial battles. His reckless approach to tackles is intimidating but well-practiced. Above all, Pepe is passionate to the point of madness at times, as we’ve all witnessed.

Sometimes, his behavior actually does deter an escalation in hostilities. In April, when Neymar went nose to nose with Fabio Coentrão in the first half of the Copa del Rey final, the confrontation appeared to be escalating into a trademark El Clásico brawl, but Pepe actually diffused the situation by leading the Brazilian away by the back of the neck. Blind to the consequences the action might have provoked from the referee, Pepe sent a strong message: mess with any of us, and you mess with me. There are few who would test the durability of that theory. Don’t add Neymar to the list.

To his credit, Pepe has appeared to try to curb his fury over the last year. After a five-goal season (his best in Madrid) in which he did not see red, Pepe was sent off head-butting Germany’s Thomas Müller in Portugal’s opening World Cup match. The German, who had gone down too easily in Pepe’s opinion from a trailing hand, was sitting on the turf when Pepe returned his attention to him. A few choice words and the nudge of the skull was enough to cripple Portugal’s hopes of qualifying for the knock-out stages. The Seleção went on to lose the match 4–0.

Criticism came from all corners via social media. The effect seemed to snowball quickly due to his history of previous incidents, and Pepe must shoulder shoulder the weight of the blame for Portugal’s premature exit. The Iberians suffered a 2–2 draw with the United States while he was suspended, and with a hefty goal differential to overcome against Ghana, hope was all but lost. The Müller incident will serve as a reminder to Real’s opponents this season. Pepe is just crazy enough to risk getting sent off in order to serve his own brand of justice. Ultimately, the World Cup is just the latest chapter in the debate over whether the fiery defender is more villain or a vigilante.

The H