Portuguese defender Pepe doesn’t exactly make himself easy to like — one brutal temper tantrum, the kind that would make even Joey Barton blush, earned him a 10-match ban at Real Madrid after he raked his studs down the back of an opponent in 2009.
More recently, his embarrassing play-acting in this year’s Champions League final drew social media abuse from all over the world.
But there’s a reason Portugal are so desperate to get him fit to face Wales in a Euro 2016 semi-final tonight.
The 33-year-old, who has won everything there is to win in almost 10 years at the Bernabeu doesn’t earn the same kind of headlines, or probably the same kind of money, as Cristiano Ronaldo; but he’s every bit as important to his team’s chances of reaching the final in Paris.
There will be a nervous few hours for Portugal coach Fernando Santos, then, as he awaits medical reports on a thigh injury which forced Pepe — who has 74 caps and three international goals — to train on his own yesterday amid suggestions he was only 50-50 to make the game in Lyon.
“I’m not going to answer if he’ll play,” said Santos.
“But I’ll be sleeping quietly because I have other players that can play if needed. Sometimes players recover and are fully fit — sometimes they aren’t.
“If Pepe can be 100% I will think about it but all the players need to be entirely fit for a game like this. So, we will wait until tomorrow to make the decision.”
In all likelihood the Real Madrid man will be risked – Portugal have the experienced Ricardo Carvalho to come on if anything goes wrong — and there’s little doubt that Wales would prefer to face him than the muscle and gamesmanship of Pepe, who was also famously sent off in the 2014 World Cup for head-butting Germany’s Thomas Muller and who was once accused of stamping on Lionel Messi’s hand.
However, journalist Jose Delgado, who covers the Portugal national team for Portuguese newspaper A Bola, still describes him as “one of the best defenders in the world” and is happy to defend the player’s controversial moments too.
He said: “He had a very badincident in Spain some years ago and that marked the way people see him. But since then his disciplinary record is much better than Sergio Ramos, who has 10 times more yellow cards.
“Pepe is not a violent guy and off the pitch he’s very quiet and regular, a normal guy. He has an image – and I don’t think he can do anything about it any more — but he has worked on it and I would say he has improved.
“He still does some silly things, like in the Champions League final, but on the other hand he’s one of the best defenders in the world, he’s a fantastic player and he means a lot to this Portuguese team.”
Officially of course, Ronaldo is captain of the side but look at Portugal’s performances here and you can see the importance of Pepe.
“He’s a leader, no doubt about that,” said Delgado. “But Portugal is lucky because in defence they have four captains — you have Pepe, you have Ricardo Carvalho, you have Jose Fonte who is captain at Southampton and Bruno Alves who is captain at Fenerbahce. You have four very experienced players, all of them a leader on the pitch.
“If Pepe is ruled out then Carvalho will come in. The information we have is that it is only a small injury on the muscle and maybe he won’t mind taking a chance. My personal opinion is he will play.”
Even if Pepe does play and guide Portugal to their second European Championship final, you can be pretty sure — unless he has one of his crazy moments — that he will play second fiddle in any post-match interviews to the media magnet that is Ronaldo; but Delgado doesn’t feel it’s a big issue any more.
He said: “It’s inevitable. This is my 12th tournament and I’ve been with Argentina many times as well as Portugal — and then it was all about Messi. My first tournament was in 1990 in Italy — and then it was all about Maradona. So it’s normal.
“Ronaldo knows how to live with it and what’s important is that the group has now learned how to live with it. That’s why Portugal is in a good moment because they have learned to live with Ronaldo as a superstar.
“Pepe is happy to do that too. He’s a fantastic player, but he’s not Ronaldo. Ronaldo is the sportsman in the world who makes the most money, he’s like a Hollywood star, he’s on another level and another dimension. But what we can say is that Pepe is one of the best of the mortals.”
Here’s a little extra sport. Watch the latest BallTalk for the best sports chat and analysis: Euro 2016 - Can Wales win Euro 2016?
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