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Pepe: Real Madrid’s New Guardian

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Képler Laveran Lima Ferreira, known to most as just Pepe, was born in Maceló, Brazil, on the 26th of February 1983. As a defender, he distinguishes himself from his counterparts by his embodiment of both speed and physical prowess — the former attribute he perfected by regularly running the beaches of Brazil as a youngster, whilst his Hulk-like figure he accredits to a forward-thinking and authoritarian father, who forced the young Pepe to perform jumping exercises in the sea with a weight strapped to his leg.

Pepe has also played football at all levels, having left his native Brazil for Portugal, where he was forced to work his way up from the Maritimo reserve squad to the heights of Co Adriaanse’s Championship-winning FC Porto team. Pepe’s form at the Portuguese giants saw him garner the celebrated FC Porto annual award for player of the year, and he has gone on to follow in the footsteps of ex-Porto great Deco by making his debut for the Selecção Portuguesa de Futebol, the first of what will surely amount to an impressive repertoire of caps.

In aerial combat, Pepe reminds one of Nemanja Vidic, although the Portuguese man possesses an even greater leap, at least in defensive situations. Vidic, whom my friends and I regularly greet with cries of “hench” every time he touches the ball, is positively dwarfed by the impressive frame of the Portuguese Punisher. If Baptista is the beast, Pepe is the dinosaurian figure that gobbles up beasts and attackers alike. Meanwhile, the conjunction of speed with a cannon-ball shot even led to Pepe filling spots in the centre of the park and up front, and he soon repaid this faith by scoring the winning goal for Maritimo in a crucial away tie at Braga FC. Although not the most accomplished passer, Pepe offers a good deal of attacking verve, although he is not the most prolific of goalscoring defenders.

When Real Madrid shelled out some 30 million euros to sign the mercurial defender from Porto over the summer, the move was greeted with an array of jeers and sniggers by football experts across the globe. Such mockery was compounded by the revelation on the part of Carlos Queiroz that his recommendation to Messrs Valdano and Pérez to sign a then 20 year-old Pepe for a measly sum of 2 million euros — comparative peanuts — had been rejected off-hand by the Real hierarchy because “defenders did not sell football shirts” (a questionable assertion if reliable, as players such as Roberto Carlos and now Sergio Ramos certainly attract a sizeable number of customers, if not in the same range as the galácticos). Further scorn was heaped upon the club when Bayram Tutumlu, a Turkish agent, suggested that Trabzonspor had been unwilling to pay more than 2 million euros for the defender, and this just twelve months before the eventual move to Madrid.

Nowhere were these guffaws louder, or more perceptible in the capital, than in Barcelona, where Los Merengues’ main rivals had snared Argentinean centre-back Gabi Milito for a far less inflated fee. For FC Barcelona, the capture of Milito represented a hefty success on three fronts: firstly, with club captain Carles Puyol to return from injury betimes, Frank Rijkaard would have three top centre backs at his disposal; secondly, Milito’s huge amount of pace would enable him to form a useful and varied partnership with either Márquez or Puyol; and tercio, Milito’s signing represented a victory over Real Madrid, a collective sticking out of the Catalan tongue at the capital city, and in particular at Ramón Calderón.

Milito, lest we forget, had already been subjected to a veritable soap-opera when Real Madrid had expressed interest in signing the defender. The two clubs having agreed a fee for his services, and the player having successfully negotiated personal terms, Milito was whisked away from Madrid hours before he was due to sign on the dotted line, the Madrid doctors citing the player’s failure of a routine medical for the transfer’s collapse. The player’s representation reacted with a mixture of anger and bemusement, and no trace of the knee injury to which the Madrid doctors had alluded in their report has ever reared its head.

Think of the tension between Man United and Chelsea over Mikel’s signing, and you can have some idea of the ferocity with which Real Madrid and Barcelona compete for players. The completion of Milito’s signature was a hugely symbolic act. It was tantamount to snatching away a school of fresh sole from beneath the jaws of a limbering shark, and giving the shark a slap in the face along the way; and it constituted another step towards payback for the Figo fiasco which has haunted many culés for the last seven campaigns or so.

The ease with which Milito took up his berth at the heart of the Barcelona defence clashed violently with the lumbering performances with which Pepe introduced himself to the Real Madrid fans. Barcelona’s defence looked composed and nonchalant, particularly given the additional cover afforded by Touré Yaya, whilst Real Madrid continued to win whilst offering up a portrait of defensive uncertainty. Written off by many, in what has now become a stereotypical move, it looked again as if mighty Goliath was destined to fall.

However, after the necessary weaning period, including a couple of patently poor performances — the horror show against Sevilla, and the concomitant calls for Pepe to be benched for few months, immediately jump to mind — Pepe has made himself one of the stars of Berndt Schuster’s disciplined, well-organised unit.

The Real Madrid defence has been so mean this season that the stereotype linking only Catalans with avarice has begun to look hackneyed and worn; only Barcelona have conceded fewer goals than Real Madrid this season, and both clubs have thus far accomplished the feat of having conceded goals at a ratio of less than one a game, having let in 13 and 14 goals respectively. Additionally, it would not be an exaggeration to say that Pepe’s stirring performances have brought the best out of former World Player of the Year Fabio Cannavaro, whom Pepe has metaphorically taken by the hand since his arrival, whilst a further bonus comes when one considers that Pepe’s partnership with Cannavaro has allowed the impressive Sergio Ramos to spend more time at right-back, where his marauding runs have paid dividend on many an occasion.

Pepe was truly immense at the Bernabeu against the dangerous Osasuna, snuffing out the slightest hint of danger with decision and skill. And his performance against Barcelona, albeit against the depleted blaugrana forward-line, composed of an exhausted Eto’o who fought tireless and uselessly to free himself from Pepe’s shackles, and a glum, ineffective Ronaldinho, was essentially impeccable. In the battle of David (Gabi Milito) and Goliath (played by Pepe) enacted on Sunday evening at the Camp Nou, there was only one victor. Seldom defeated in the air and patient with his draconian challenges on the ground, Pepe marshalled a backline which was never truly breached, whilst Real Madrid’s penetrative counter-attacks had Milito and Márquez desperately scurrying. Pepe was, without doubt, along with Sergio Ramos, the pick of the bunch.

Moreover, the importance of this stability for the immediate future of the Madrid club cannot be underestimated. Central defence has been a problem position for Real for as long as I can remember, a problem fully exacerbated by the decline of Hierro and the sale of Makelele, who had previously afforded so much protection to the fragile defensive line.

Various incumbents have tried — and failed — to hold down a place in front of Iker Casillas, including the gormless, sluggish Walter Samuel, the unfortunate Ivan Helguera and the disastrous Francisco Pavón. With Pepe as ringleader, Real for the first time in recent years do not look overly vulnerable from crosses and set plays (the defence attack the ball and mark their opposite numbers, rather than shying away from the former as if it were an acid rain attack and fleeing the latter like herpes carriers) and Casillas is at last gaining the spectator time every top keeper from Van der Saar, to Cech, to Buffon has the right to expect.

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Hugo Steckelmacher has loved football since he can remember - indeed, his mother often jokes that he kicked so much as a baby due to his eagerness to get out of the womb and play football! Of German-Jewish descent, a rocky love-affair with Tottenham began at a young age, and his favourite players as a child were Nick Barmby and Gary Mabbutt. At the age of ten, he began to watch La Liga football and fell in love with the league and especially with the "juego bonito" of the two biggest clubs, Real Madrid and Barcelona. Now living in Barcelona, Hugo regularly [sic] writes on La Liga and Tottenham.