It’s a feeling that’s snuck up on us, about as unexpected and confusing as an office crush… we like Pepe now.
For most of his career, hating Pepe has been such a competitive sport that it was rumoured to be up for inclusion in the 2016 Olympics.
With the appearance of a Disney villain – bald head, large eyebrows and shit-eating grin – and a dedication to the dark arts that’d shame Lord Voldemort, Pepe has tripped and argued his way to a glut of trophies at both club and international level.
Now 40, Pepe is approaching the end of his 23rd season in senior football, the past five of those spent with Porto in what represents his second spell at the Estadio do Dragao.
It’s back on his terra firma that Pepe has become strangely likeable. His defensive masterclass against Juventus in 2021 earnt him a new legion of fans, a development that caused the Portugal international to come out in hives.
And perhaps it’s just the sight of a world-class footballer seeing out his playing days at the club closest to his heart and still killing it at an age where most males are fretting over back problems and prostate exams.
The last point is perhaps the most pertinent; this isn’t simply some end-of-career jolly for Pepe. He’s still in the team on merit.
As Porto travelled the short distance to Pacos de Ferreira on Saturday, with a win essential to keep in touch with league leaders Benfica, the wizened back-stop needed every sinew of strength and stealth to keep the hosts at bay.
Midfielder Nicolas Gaitan flicked the ball over one Porto defender and zoomed towards goal with the dispiriting speed of a Mario Kart champ. A goal seemed inevitable.
But Gaitan did not count on Pepe defying Father Time. As the Pacos de Ferreira man shaped to shoot, he hadn’t clocked that Pepe had somehow made up all the ground on his adversary.
And the 40-year-old got a grizzled limb between Gaitan and the goal to deflect his shot to safety and reinforce his status as one of world football’s biggest heartbreakers.
Stop that Pepe. pic.twitter.com/AcQgdbhuFg
— Stop That Football (@stopthatfooty) April 23, 2023
Pepe has agreed to prolong his playing career at Porto, signing a new contract with the Portuguese giants as he begins his fifth decade.
The 133-cap Portugal defender has no plans to end his playing days just yet, having put pen to paper on a 12-month extension with Porto to stay at the club until the end of the 2023-24 campaign.
“I’m very nervous because it’s a contract that means a lot to me,” Pepe, who has played almost 30 times this season, told Porto’s official website.
“As a player and person, I usually say I’m very honest. I’m 40 years old but I owe a lot to Porto and I don’t want to defraud the president or the people at the club.
“I want to thank everyone at the club for making me better every day as a player, a person and a father.”
It’s worth remembering just how much of an illustrious career the defender has enjoyed; Pepe has won 12 trophies across his two stints with Porto, including four Primeira Liga titles.
The generation-defining shithouse has also won the Champions League and La Liga three times each during a 10-year spell with Real Madrid, as well as winning Euro 2016 and the 2018-19 Nations League with Portugal.
But he’s never been as likeable as he has during his time-defying imperiousness at Porto. Maybe it’s time we booked a doctor’s appointment to cure us of these strange feelings.
By Michael Lee