Football is not just for ballerinas

Pepe, Real Madrid’s brutal but talented defender, shows that it takes more than sublime skill to win matches.

Viral Shah

Topics Politics

After legendary Italian hardman Claudio Gentile man-marked (well, hacked) Diego Maradona out of the 1982 World Cup, he famously quipped: ‘Football is not for ballerinas.’ And there’s no one out there today less reminiscent of a ballerina than Réal Madrid’s current enforcer, Pepe.

If football’s not for ballerinas, though, it does seem to be a culture clash between fighters and actors. While the game is played at a far higher pace, and the likelihood of serious injury as a result of foul play is probably greater, there is also an increasing propensity for the fouled player to feign injury and roll around. The dichotomy between fouler and fouled is no more transparent than between Réal Madrid and Barcelona in recent El Clásico games.

Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side fulfil the role of footballing purists, full of impish midfield playmakers who impose dominance on the opposition through their tiki-taka philosophy: running the opposition ragged through slick and fluid possession football. In comparison, Real Madrid’s (and more accurately, their coach Jose Mourinho’s) style is perhaps regarded as its antithesis. Mourinho’s teams are invariably tough, athletic, meticulous in their preparation, excellent at set-plays, and aggressive in their pressing of the opposition. Réal’s Portuguese defender Pepe is representative of the archetypal Mourinho man, while Mourinho himself likes to use his media pronouncements to create a siege mentality in his squad.

Unsurprisingly, Pepe himself also possesses this polemical edge, one which has often mutated into psychotic violence. The latest incident occurred last Sunday, as Real shockingly fell to lowly Valencian side Levante in a 1-0 defeat. In trying to win the ball back as Real went in search of an equaliser late in the second half, Pepe scraped his studs down on the ankle of Levante’s Xavi Torres, before clipping the player on the head when he was on the floor. The intent was obvious, and Torres later revealed that no apology was made. But amazingly, the referee only produced a yellow card for the assault.

This wasn’t even Pepe’s magnus opus in terms of footballing GBH. That honour belongs to his 2009 work at the Bernabeu on Getafe’s Javier Casquero. Real needed to win to keep their title hopes alive, as Casquero burst through on goal in the eighty-seventh minute, with the score level at 2-2. Pepe strained to get back but clumsily conceded a penalty for pushing the Getafe man in the back. Frustrated at his own stupidity, Pepe, in his own words, ‘lost control’. He aimed two malicious kicks at Casquero, who was on the floor, while also punching Juan Albin in the face in the ensuing fracas.

As it happened, the resulting penalty was meekly chipped by Casquero into the hands of the grateful Iker Casillas, and Réal went down the other end to score through Gonzalo Higuain to win 3-2. The Réal players piled on top of Higuain to celebrate an improbable victory and, inconceivably, Pepe (who having been sent off, shouldn’t have even been on the pitch) jumped on top with a massive grin.

In the aftermath, the Portuguese defender was banned for 10 games and fined twice. Pepe himself made no excuses, claiming: ‘These are the worst days of my life. I have watched it again and I don’t recognise myself. I went absolutely mad.’ There were suggestions that Pepe considered retiring from the sport. He underwent anger management, but doubts still lingered over the longevity of this change of attitude.

Despite the plethora of violence that has littered his career, there is no doubt that Pepe has developed into one of the best defenders in the world since his €30million move from FC Porto in 2007 and a horrific debut in a 5-3 Super Cup loss to Sevilla (where he recklessly abandoned his defensive station for regular upfield forays, conceded a penalty with a handball and then got sent off). Mourinho has harnessed this aggression, with some even describing Pepe as the personification of his manager’s ideology. Pepe has learned to disguise his more malicious tackles as clumsy follow-throughs. Aggression and physicality are present in every aspect of Pepe’s game, from clearances to interceptions.

The El Clásico series last April saw Pepe deployed as a midfield destroyer, alongside Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira, to try and break down the passing patterns initiated by Barcelona’s Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets. The Portuguese man was impressive, winning the ball back and initiating counter-attacks throughout the four matches. The football wasn’t pretty, though, with some horrific challenges made and terrible playacting from both sides.

There were again flashes of Pepe’s inner Hulk, with terrible tackles on Messi, Dani Alves, and Dani Alves again, a challenge for which he was sent off. Alves was stretchered off and seemed to be in agony before running back onto the pitch as if nothing happened. The incident led to a propaganda war in the Spanish press, with Réal releasing a video of the tackle, claiming there was no contact, while Barcelona countered that the footage was doctored and had frames removed.

All this playacting may be counterproductive, however. One explanation for why Pepe hasn’t been sent off more in games against Barcelona is perhaps that his violent actions are offset by the exaggerated reactions to any tackle by the Barcelona players, meaning that some serious challenges could go unpunished due to the antics of Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves.

Another explanation is that the referee is often unwilling to kill a game early on by sending a player off, even thought the point in the game when a challenge occurs should have no bearing on how it is dealt with. Another Pepe-centred example reflects this: In an earlier Champions League game against Lyon last season, the defender kicked Aly Cissokho in the face and kneed Lisandro Lopez in the head. Having been booked earlier in the match, Pepe somehow escaped a second yellow card.

Such actions are typical of a player that has surpassed less-talented cloggers such as Kevin Muscat, Lee Cattermole and Joey Barton as the most violent footballer around. In February, Mourinho made a telling comment regarding his compatriot’s importance: ‘The team with Pepe plays higher, the team with Pepe presses harder, the team with Pepe attacks better.’

This, along with Claudio Gentile’s comment may ring true, but there are also sporting principles that need to be adhered to. Physicality to an extent is acceptable and expected, but reckless brutality is one step too far. Pepe has become caricatured as mentally unhinged and downright nasty.

Maybe one day Pepe will be canonized alongside Gentile, Juve’s Paolo Montero, and others. For that to happen, his aggression will need to be controlled and adapted into a refined tackling technique. At the moment, that doesn’t look too likely.

Viral Shah is a graduate of the Young Journalists’ Academy. He blogs at LiberoFootball.

Duleep Allirajah is away.

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Topics Politics


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