Pantomime villain Pepe on borrowed time
If Portugal's players have been entertaining thoughts of what might have been since their World Cup exit three weeks ago, any feelings of regret may have been accentuated by the tournament's climax. Germany were indisputably worthy winners but if we take it right back to the start and the opening game for Jogi Low's side, they might reflect that they received a helping hand.
Germany were certainly beneficiaries of a few Portuguese errors, but none jars in the mind as much as Pepe's first-half red card. The sheer pointlessness of it only increases with every replay. Thomas Muller fell to the ground after minimal contact with the Portugal defender. Referee Milorad Mazic seemed unmoved, but Pepe inexplicably bent down to thrust his head into the Bayern forward. For all the consternation over Muller's initial play-acting, he didn't stay down after Pepe's cranial intervention. Mazic couldn't have had a better view, though, and had little option but to usher Pepe off.
The sending off didn't affect the winners of the game -- Germany were already two up -- or the result of the tournament. It did, however, make a big contribution to Portugal's eventual exit from the competition. Paulo Bento's men laboured playing 50 minutes-plus in the lunchtime heat of Salvador with 10 men, with Germany able to increase the score to 4-0 without really going for the throat. The negative goal difference was ultimately the factor that kippered Portugal's hopes of qualifying, suffered in a game in which they had a surprising amount of opportunity.
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Yet far from being treated as a pariah for his spectacular lapse in judgement, Pepe was barely even chided by his colleagues. Coach Bento referred to Mazic's decision to exclude him as "contrived" after the match, while Helder Postiga said the referee should have shown "some common sense." It echoed Jose Mourinho's contention that Pepe "didn't do anything" after his dismissal for a poor studs-up challenge on Dani Alves (which was accompanied by a touch of emphasis by the Barcelona man) in the Champions League semifinal with Real Madrid in April 2011.
While he's not compelled to change by those around him, why would he? The only episode he has really taken responsibility for was the most extreme, when he totally lost his head while playing for El Real against near-neighbours Getafe in April 2009. After conceding a penalty for a foul on the visitors' Javi Casquero, he went on to assault him and teammate Juan Albin. Pepe said his actions and his loss of control left him feeling "depressed" and intimated that he even considered his future in the game, though he returned to duty after completing a subsequent 10-match ban.
This contrition was very much a one-off, though. Pepe was bullish in a news conference ahead of Portugal's final World Cup match against Ghana, which marked his return to the line-up after sitting out the game against the United States through his ban. Reflecting on the suspension itself, he attempted to argue that it was almost an endorsement of his standards of behaviour, and a rebuke to referee Mazic.
"Everyone knows that a straight red card comes after an attack [on a another player]," Pepe said. "And FIFA punishes that with a two-game suspension, or more. In my case, it wasn't an attack, so I only got one game. It was a harsh sending-off."
It was, in many ways, typical Pepe. He was lucid, polite and thoughtful, as he tends to be in press engagements. Yet somehow, he also seemed pretty short on self-awareness. He went on to further belittle the effect of the red on himself. "I'm coming off a season where I played 48 games, 47 as a starter," he continued. "We were champions of Europe, we won the cup and we fought for the title to the end. I have a club who supports me, and many Portuguese who support me too."
It is hard to believe that Carlo Ancelotti didn't raise that famous eyebrow. One might argue that Pepe started so many times due to Raphael Varane's fitness problems last season, but either way, few if any are indispensable at the Bernabeu. At 31 and with two years left on his contract, one must wonder whether he's running out of chances. He was even mooted as a makeweight in some quarters for Madrid's prospective move for Monaco's James Rodriguez.
Examining his tenure in the Spanish capital is a tricky task, as befits such a complex and contradictory character. He has played a part in the capture of seven major trophies, and it is fair to recognise Mourinho's complicity in some of his misdeeds in recent years (including the unpunished stamp on Lionel Messi's hand in a January 2012 Copa del Rey match), placing him out of position and winding him up as an attack dog, rather than encouraging him to maintain the composure that sees him at his best.
In fact, it was Carlos Queiroz who first returned Pepe to a holding midfield post (which he had briefly occupied in his younger days) in Portugal's qualifying campaign for the previous World Cup, in 2010. He was considered so pivotal to the former Real Madrid coach's ultra-cautious game plan that the door was held open until the last minute as he recovered from a cruciate knee ligament injury.
Pepe will be 33 by the time Portugal (hopefully for them) take part in Euro 2016, but chances are he will continue to be important. The national team's options are not currently myriad, as we found out after a few injuries and suspensions in Brazil. Pepe's ban for the game with the U.S. left Paulo Bento fielding a centre-back pairing of Bruno Alves and Ricardo Costa (with a combined age of 65), even if the Valencia man performed admirably. Porto and Benfica's continued heavy plundering of foreign markets -- especially Latin American ones -- suggest that this might continue to be the case.
So, for the moment, Pepe's enduring quality ensures he will continue to be indulged -- but for how much longer at his club, we must ask. It is a source of continued frustration around a player who is rightly considered a key one.