Revisiting the legacy of Pepe at Real Madrid

Real Madrid, Pepe (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images)
Real Madrid, Pepe (Photo credit should read JAVIER SORIANO/AFP via Getty Images) /

Real Madrid signed a 24-year-old sensation in 2007, who remained a key contributor to Porto’s back-to-back league titles. This young man had excellent vision and a fantastic touch on the ball and, the club knew they had someone special. As it is he went on to make 334 professional appearances for Los Blancos in a career decorated with silverware. He is none other than Pepe.

Success aside, Pepe remained criminally underrated at the club as injuries and fights seemed to follow the Brazil-born for the primaries of his Bernabeu days. Pepe’s official debut for Real Madrid came on August 1, 2007, against Sevilla in the Super Cup. He started on a high with a 1-0 win and showed decent defensive intent.

His first monumental memory however would be of an own-goal and the only goal in a 0-1 defeat to Deportivo La Coruna in the 2007-08 season. Right before the away Clasico fixture in the same season, he was involved in a fight with his teammate Javier Balboa during training. However, he was called back for the match against Barcelona, where the Portuguese put on a MOTM performance in a 1-0 win for Los Blancos at Camp Nou. Eventually Real were crowned the champions of La Liga.

The next season stayed full of injuries for the big defender. And then on 21 April 2009, he was involved in one of the ugliest incidents in La Liga history. Getafe’s Javier Casquero was brought down inside the penalty area by Pepe and the scoreline read 2-2 at that time. He was sent off by the referee upon which the Portuguese kicked Casquero twice on the shin and once on the lower back, which resulted in a 10 match ban and an end to his season.

The 2009-10 season was another injury-prone season. This time, he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament. He missed a good part of the season and jeopardized his chances at the 2010 World Cup. The season remained particularly important for Pepe because he scored his first league goal through a Guti-free-kick in a 2-1 loss to Sevilla. When Jose Mourinho joined Real as the manager, Pepe could shine brighter in defense paired with Sergio Ramos and Richard Carvalho.

Together with these players, he made for one of the best defensive pairings in LaLiga especially effective against Lionel Messi making the much-needed difference in heated Clasicos. One incident particularly strikes memories when a challenge on Dani Alves led to a red card in 2011’s Champions League semifinals against Barcelona. Some exaggerations and heated comments by both clubs led to a disciplinary hearing with the UEFA.

Transfer rumors loomed ahead, but the Portuguese would remain in the club until the end of the 2016-17 season. He remained a low earner in the club, however, the issues were solved in 2015 and the deals always found extensions. As it is today, we know how important the extensions were and what they meant to him as he opened the passage for Los Blancos’ glory again.

Pepe was a key defender for Real Madrid after La Decima

The extended years again saw petty feuds and unfortunate situations that came at the expense of bans and disciplinary actions. He eventually lost his starting spot to Raphael Varane after getting into a feud with Jose Mourinho in 2014. His fiery nature remained a constant foe to his prosperity at the club.

The next season in particular was a standout for Pepe. He had a personal career-high number of goals scored and appearances made for Real Madrid, making 11 appearances in their La Decima winning campaign in the2013-14 UEFA Champions League. Pepe made nine appearances in the UEFA Champions League and 31 appearances in all competitions.

He started the match when the team won the Champions League final against Atletico Madrid in a penalty shoot-out at San Siro, Milan. In his last year playing for Real Madrid, Pepe had an injury-riddled season, in which he made 13 appearances, when Madrid won their 33rd LaLiga and the 2016–17 UEFA Champions League, defeating Juventus in the final at Principality Stadium, Cardiff.

The final win, however, was something special. The last time he had the Royal White kit on, it wasn’t to play but to celebrate a European triumph with his teammates. As later revealed, the manager Zinedine Zidane had a conversation with Pepe before the match who humbly turned down and said that his appearance in the match could compromise with the overall fitness of the team and that there were better options available to start. With that, he left Real Madrid on a sad touch.

Pepe is now back at his boyhood club Porto and time and again opens up on his days at Real Madrid saying his club mate, Eder Militao, and many more players from smaller clubs have the caliber to make it to the stage as he did.

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When we remember Pepe’s days with Los Blancos, we remember how effective he was against Messi. We remember all the important goals he scored with his head, from set-pieces. We remember the fifteen major titles that included the Champions Leagues.  We remember La Decima and we remember the dominant defensive line that every single club in the league and beyond feared to play against.