The final of Euro 2016 served as the perfect stage a man who was fighting eleven men and his own reputation. It was Pepe’s night.
10 July 2016. Portugal v France. Final of the Euro 2016.
Portugal’s road to the final in Stade de France was an unorthodox one. First, they stumbled over the first hurdle by finishing third behind Hungary and Iceland in their respective group. Progression, however, would not have been possible without an expanded format and Iceland’s injury time goal against Austria. They then reached the quarter-finals by defeating an increasingly impressive Croatia in the dullest game of the tournament, before toppling Poland through penalties and coasting past Wales in the semi-finals.
Portugal’s journey to the final was a performance that no team in a major final had any right to give. It seemed as if defending was the height of their ambition, lacking any creativity and fluidness on the forefront of the pitch. Apart from Ronaldo fans and the Portuguese people, everyone entertained the thought of Portugal packing their bags and taking the first flight home.
The frustrated Twitter rants on Portugal’s approach were a common sight as the only thing Portugal’s adversaries had seen before being stifled was that bastard smirk of Cristiano Ronaldo and coach Fernando Santos singing the national anthem with a hand across his chest.
Pepe—a 33-year-old Real Madrid centre back—started the final next to José Fonte—a late-blooming gentleman who was quite possibly enjoying the summer of his life. On their right hand-side stood Cédric Soares, preparing to grace the right flank and make it a thoroughly unpleasant place for the Frenchmen. Twenty-two-year-old Raphaël Guerreiro was ready to impress as a left back, and William Carvalho connected the dots between midfield and defence in front of the backline.
The onus was on Pepe to lead this Portugal defence, be the navigator and metronome at the heart of manager Santos’ conservative tactics against the haughty, prototype version of the French side that would go on to win the world championship two years later.
Pepe’s preparation for the final wasn’t a bed of roses, however. The silent Maceió-born defender had trained separately just two days before the final, having missed Portugal’s semi-final against Wales due to a thigh injury. Taking this into consideration, it’s a marvel how exquisitely and calmly he would perform under the eyes of fully packed Stade de France.
Portugal’s final didn’t start in accordance to coach Santos’ blueprints. A Seleção das Quina, as a whole, seemed a tad too nervous, allowing France to run riot. In the tenth minute, Pepe slipped and fell on the right wing, driving his team into further trouble and letting a shot come through. It looked as if Portugal would lose the final by a large margin, with their bubble bursting in a grotesque fashion.
But then—after 25 minutes of action—Ronaldo fell down, writhing in sheer physical pain and the mental trauma of coming to terms with being denied a further role in a major final. With Ronaldo carried off on a stretcher, Pepe stepped in, convincing his compatriots how to find motivation against the hosts. “When Cristiano said he couldn’t go on, I tried to tell my teammates that we have to win it for him, that we were going to fight for him.”
It was as if Pepe wanted to redeem himself from the ghosts of 2014 World Cup; as if he wanted to be admired by his peers in post-match palavers. He knew that with Ronaldo in the stands, it would be him who should provide Portugal the feeling of security. Even if Nani got to don that anachronistic armband of a captain, it was Pepe who should prove to be the back they could climb onto.
Weirdly, the Ronaldo injury forced the game to kick into idling. The French lost the sense of urgency as they felt that with the injury, Portugal’s odds to the title had tanked, because France could now play free and fluid football rather than worry about Ronaldo at all times. The tempo of the match descended, hence the Portuguese managed to grabble back into the game as the half wore on.
Pepe started to press high, allowing Fonte to stand firmly behind him as the last lock before Rui Patrício. He succeeded in keeping the French at bay by stamping his implacable authority on each of them, especially Olivier Giroud. Whenever they attempted to engineer space for a shot, Pepe was expeditious to close them down, averaging an interception every seven minutes and winning more than half of his aerial mano-a-manos.
On the whole, it was striking how composed he was throughout the evening. Every other defending Portuguese collected a yellow card as a souvenir from the final: William, Guerreiro, Fonte, Cédric and even Patrício. But not Pepe. Loco Kepler Laveran de Lima Ferreira did not commit a single foul that evening. Racist, shameful and diving edition of Pepe was nowhere to be seen that night.
As surely as the leaves come off the trees in fall, he could have wasted a minute here, a minute there, but didn’t.
Instead, he showed his people and experts that, when needed, he, like most elite athletes, can excel at his profession better than you and I can ever excel at ours. He had a tunnel vision when it came to blocking Antoine Griezmann’s, Payet’s and André-Pierre Gignac’s routes to goal. The single thought on his mind was that he should be remembered as European champion—not as Sergio Ramos’ goofy sidekick, or histrionic play-acts and borderline psychopathic challenges.
Once Pepe started his stuttering, time-wasting run-up for a late free kick, he’d already won the hearts of the Portuguese. “O Vice-captain! My Vice-captain!” their minds sang together, heaping praise in form of a chorus for their unlikely hero. They realised that Portugal defeating a heavyweight in a one-legged decider was not impossible without el mejor jugador del mundo. But it could be without Pepe.
And so, the overachieving Portugal toppled France 1–0 with the backing of Eder’s lone strike.
After the final whistle, Pepe vomited, overloaded with emotion, knowing that he’d been impassable for the whole two hour sequence. He’d been impassable when the people of Portugal needed him the most. For some 120 minutes, he had shut out all emotional aspects and focussed on implementing the gaffer’s motifs.
Was he unable to move his limbs without watching them? Probably, as that midnight in Paris had been nothing like funk. For me, at least, it had been heavy metal accompanied by a measure of Italo disco. It had been a night of contradictions.
Portugal had approached the game like an irritating adoptee of the side that’d earned the moniker of the most entertaining team at the 2006 World Cup. And Pepe—Pepe had turned up like a true post-anger management and yoga sessions version of himself.
All in all, 10 July 2016 was a weird night. Not stolen by goalscoring bots, not by deceptive artists who use their feet as if they were their hands, but by an unheralded veteran. A man who is still surprisingly under-appreciated, in an already under-appreciated role.
Hopefully, however, some members of the next generation will look back at the final and learn about the heroics of Pepe. Hopefully, we treat him like he should be treated once he retires, even though no laudatory articles will be written about his performance in the Euro 2016 Final. No articles will be written, even though he rewrote the story of that final by not putting a foot wrong. By showing everyone that he had indeed tamed his inner Jack Torrance.
And now, here I am, looking at him weeping tears with Ronaldo, realising that winning the European Championship meant as much for him as it did for Portugal’s natural leader. Maybe even more.