February 26, 2012. Barcelona had just beaten Atletico Madrid 2-1 due to a late Lionel Messi winner but Pep Guardiola was not smiling in his post-match Press conference. Messi had picked up his fifth yellow card of the season during the game, and would be suspended for Barca’s next League match. The Spanish Football Federation had reportedly instructed referees to punish all handballs with a booking, whether they were accidental or intentional, and the Catalan Coach summed up his feelings on this rule by pointing out that Messi had the same number of yellow cards for the season as Pepe.
Merely mentioning the Real Madrid defender’s name was enough to get his point across, a damning indication of the ugly reputation Pepe has.
Barcelona have their own reasons to dislike the Portuguese centre-back – only a month before the game with Atleti, he had trod on Messi’s hand during a Clasico in the Copa del Rey, but escaped unpunished. Even the tribal Madrid-based media condemned the player’s actions then. Less than a year earlier, Pepe had been sent off for planting his studs on Dani Alves’s shin in the first leg of a Champions League semi-final, the third Clasico in 12 days. It was during these three encounters with Madrid that Barcelona allegedly conducted secret filming of Pepe, hoping to prove he had been kicking Barca players off-the-ball in order to launch a smear campaign against him.
Pepe played as a midfield enforcer in those three games and did a remarkable job in the first two of nullifying Barcelona, leading to Madrid drawing 1-1 in the League and then winning the final of the Copa del Rey 1-0. The plan was paying off in the Champions League semi-final first leg, until he was sent off after 60 minutes.
Andres Iniesta denied he had ever seen the alleged video when asked about it this week, but made his views on Pepe clear, saying: “The evaluations that people make of Pepe, though, are another thing. If we looked at all Pepe's actions we'd have ... opinions. We all know Pepe.”
Just a week earlier, Iniesta had been involved in a war of words with Pepe after the Portuguese accused him and Barcelona of theatrics during the Clasico.
Does Pepe deserve his reputation? Few followers of La Liga will forget his moment of madness against Getafe in April 2009, when he kicked Javier Casquero in the back when he was on the floor, then trod on him, taunted him, hit two Getafe players in the face and then fought with his own teammates. He later apologized for his actions, admitting he ‘lost control’ and even indicated he might quit football. This incident cemented his reputation as nasty player with a temper, one he has been unable to shake off since.
Yet his statistics are not as damning as one might expect. An article in AS highlighted that in the last three seasons, Pepe has made less than one foul per game on average, a better record than six players from Madrid and four from Barca, whilst he has been fouled an average of 1.311 times per game.
While the author of the article could have been accused of protesting too much, it made for interesting reading. Although Pepe has received more yellow cards than any Barcelona player in the last three seasons, he has received fewer than teammates and Spain internationals Sergio Ramos and Xabi Alonso.
Do the two players get an easier ride in the media and public eye than Pepe due to their status as key players for Spain? Alonso comes across well in interviews and has done advertising for fashion designers, masking his aggressive and often cynical play. Ramos has more of a reputation for being a dirty player than the Basque midfielder, but after his ‘panenka’ penalty during Euro 2012 is another darling of the Spain support.
Yet, if it is the case that Pepe has an unfair reputation, he only has himself to blame. In an interview several months after the Casquero incident, Pepe complained he had suffered enough from the fallout from that game, declaring: “I didn’t kill anyone.” It was an ill-advised remark which somewhat undid his earlier apology.
Likewise, his criticism of Iniesta, who is so popular he even gets a standing ovation from Real Madrid fans, was hardly going to endear him to the public.
Pepe is one of the best defenders in La Liga, if not the world, and his aggressive nature is often an asset to Madrid and Portugal. In most games, he is no dirtier than your average defender. But until he behaves in a more sporting manner off the pitch, his unsavoury image is unlikely to go away.