Of all the things that have been said about Pepe over his long, successful and controversial career, “he’s the sweetest person in the world” is one of the less expected.
During a decade at Real Madrid, the 38-year-old Portuguese became as renowned for a perceived lack of sportsmanship as he did for being one of Europe’s elite defenders.
But those who know him best paint a different picture of one of the modern game’s most divisive characters, a player who is enjoying an impressive swansong with Porto, helping them to the Champions League quarter-finals, where they will face Chelsea on Wednesday.
A sandwich or a phone card – a tough start in Portugal
That Pepe is back in Portugal, for whom he has won 113 caps, is a fitting end to his playing career. It is the country that gave the Brazilian-born defender his footballing chance – and welcomed him both on and off the field.
He is a hero there, widely regarded as one of the country’s greatest defenders, having helped them win the 2016 European Championship.
He has come a long way from the day, aged 17, he arrived in Lisbon with his leg in a cast – an injury in his final game before departure that he feared would scupper his move – and only five euros from his mother in his pocket.
After leaving his hometown of Maceio in Brazil to take up the offer of a contract with Maritimo, he landed in Portugal facing a choice of getting a sandwich or buying an international phone card while waiting to get through immigration. He ultimately went for the latter, calling home to let his mother know he had landed safely.
He was still hungry, though, so he asked for something to eat at a Pan & Company shop. He was given a baguette and never forgot the gesture.
Back then, all Pepe wanted was for his parents to watch him play on TV. What he would go on to achieve would surpass his wildest dreams.
His move to Portugal had only happened by chance. When Maritimo manager Nelo Vingada and club president Carlos Pereira travelled to Maceio in 2001, they did so to sign Corinthians Alagoano centre-back Ezequias, but ended up including Pepe in the deal after watching him play for only 20 minutes in a training match.
In fact, the reasoning was mainly that it would help Ezequias adapt to a new country if someone close to him came too.
But Pepe never looked back. Vingada made the career-defining decision to allow him to complete his recovery from the leg injury in Funchal and would watch the player he signed blossom into a Portugal icon.
“He’s the sweetest person in the world, very affable, but when he goes on to the field, he has a very unique identity as a player, which sometimes doesn’t reflect his personality, his nature, his feelings,” adds Vingada, whom Pepe considers a second father.
“I believe he has gained a reputation based on images from one or two Real Madrid games. As much as we like Pepe, it doesn’t hurt to recognise that those were behaviours that didn’t dignify him. That was not Pepe. The Pepe I know is the player from the other matches – sometimes aggressive, but always within the limits of football.”