‘A wonderful example’ – Pepe takes Euro 2024 by storm at the age of 41

<span>Pepe clears the ball away from danger during Portugal’s game against Turkey.</span><span>Photograph: Christopher Neundorf/EPA</span>
Pepe clears the ball away from danger during Portugal’s game against Turkey.Photograph: Christopher Neundorf/EPA

Turkey crossed the ball into the box, Pepe headed it clear and there was a cheer from the Portuguese fans. So Turkey crossed the ball into the box again, Pepe headed it clear again and there was another cheer, a little louder this time. So Turkey crossed the ball into the box for a third time, Pepe headed clear a third time and there was an even bigger cheer. This time it came with laughter, a touch of pantomime about it, like they were fools for even trying. Did you really think you were going to beat this guy?! Kepler Laveran de Lima Ferreira? Have you learned nothing these last 79 minutes? These past 22 years?

They weren’t great crosses, it is true. It is also true that Pepe wasn’t pleased with the first of the three headers, conceding a corner from which he then towered over them all, forehead twice thudding on leather, each header firmer and funnier than the last. But it came as a nice, almost cartoonish cameo of a colossus, this character who shouldn’t be playing this well. Who probably shouldn’t be playing at all any more. Not at his age. “If you’re a neutral fan watching the game and you see Pepe playing, you would never believe that he is 41 years old,” Roberto Martínez said.

Which is why although most had come to see Cristiano Ronaldo – half a dozen of them had run on to the pitch in search of a selfie with him, a sequence that, unlike Pepe’s headers, got increasingly less funny – it was the other ageing footballer they were bowing before now, something a bit more pure here, a reverence more real. And if there is Ronaldo, there will be Pepe. He had promised as much: “I will retire when Cristiano does,” he said. “As long as he is there I will be there to help.” Help? Here, he was Portugal’s best.

Taken off with five minutes to go against Turkey, the Westfalenstadion – all of it – stood to applaud him, his performance close to perfect: the timing, the determination, the understanding. An impeccable challenge, the kind that brokers no argument, effectively set up the opening goal. That was one of four he completed. There were four more recoveries, seven clearances, and 97% accuracy with the ball. But the number that everyone really had in mind was 41 years and 113 days. Well, 41 years and 117 days now.

Forty-one flipping years. No one has ever been older at this competition. It is quite likely no one ever will be either. In Portugal’s opening game, Pepe had taken the record from the previous holder, Gabor Kiraly, and he was a goalkeeper. Now, he had produced a display like this, no less impressive than any over the 18 years he has played for Portugal, a debut made when Arda Guler, briefly his opponent here, was two. Before the game he had embraced a former Real Madrid teammate: long retired, Hamit Altintop is a director at the Turkish football association now.

This win was Pepe’s 138th game for the country where he first arrived in 2001 with €5 in his pocket and a choice to make: get some food or call his mum. It wasn’t an obvious decision, however hungry he was: a molly-coddled child, the only boy surrounded by sisters, he slept in his parents’ bed until he was 17. Until he left home, in other words.

It wasn’t supposed to be him landing in Europe back then. One day, Nelo Vingada and Carlos Pereira, the coach and president of Maritimo respectively, came to watch training at Corinthians Alagoano, the club based in Maceio, Brazil, where Pepe played because they were keen on the striker. The president, João Feijó, took Pepe aside and asked him to go easy. They wanted to complete this sale and it would help if the striker looked good, so when he takes you on don’t take the ball off him too much. The way Pepe later told it, he took the ball off him every time, much like he did to Turkey here.

When they came over after the session that day, Pepe thought he was in trouble: he had said he would help but hadn’t. Instead, Vingada said: “So, do you want to come to Portugal, kid?” Ok, he replied, right now. He didn’t really think they meant it – they’d barely watched 20 minutes of a training session – but it had begun. He joined Maritimo’s B team, then the first team, then Porto, 20 years ago now. In 2019 he returned. Most expected it to be brief: he was 36 after all. Instead he stayed for five years before Porto, now under the presidency of André Villas-Boas, announced that he will not continue next season.

Not there anyway. Surely someone will want him, a formidable footballer on a free, one who need not walk away yet. Certainly if the evidence from here and from last season is anything to go by. If his approach, his application is any guide. “He is a role model, a professional,” Martínez said. “The way he reads the game, the way he competes is a wonderful, wonderful example for Portuguese football and football in general.

“I think there are two reasons [he is still going]. One is that he uses the 24 hours to be a professional footballer. That’s very easy to say but we all know players who probably prepare for two hours a day and then live a normal life and one day expect to retire. Pepe doesn’t. Everything is done down to the detail. The desire and focus is to play another year, and play another year. And then it’s just the love for the game: knowing tactical aspects, the opposition, just that constant, constant living for the game. Of course the body needs to follow: he’s got genes that I don’t think you can buy anywhere. But he’s an example of how a player can extend his career, 24 hours a day.”


He was a chubby kid, he admits. Originally his dad called him Pepinho, little Pepe, but that didn’t make much sense as he grew slimmer, stronger and, yes, nastier. The day he shaved off his hair for the first time, his mum thought it looked awful; his dad though said it was a man’s cut. Tough became his thing. “When you have to defend ugly you have to defend ugly,” he says, although it would be ridiculous to reduce him to that, and a glance at the stats shows the fouls and cards diminishing; a glance at his game reveals a player built on thought more than force. Which at 41 probably makes sense. A glance at the whole thing, with time, reveals one of the finest defenders of his generation. Spend any time with him and the hard man vanishes.

When Antonio Rüdiger joined Real Madrid, he announced that Pepe had been his idol. “On the pitch he’s a monster; off it, he’s very nice,” the German said. With Portugal he won the Euros, eight years ago now – and he was old then. At Madrid he won it all; he wasn’t on the pitch the day that Madrid claimed their 10th European Cup a decade back, because he told Carlo Ancelotti he didn’t think he was fit and didn’t want the team to risk him. Ancelotti, who did, who was prepared to put him on “even if it’s just for the photo”, in his words, always held him up as an example of altruism.

Under Ancelotti, Pepe had earned a place after a difficult end with José Mourinho and an inauspicious beginning under the Italian, who admitted that he was not first choice but was won over. “Pepe’s problem,” Mourinho had said, “has a name and that name is Raphaël Varane.” This was “just life”; it can be hard to take, Mourinho said, when a kid overtakes you and time is slipping away. Eleven years later, Pepe is at the Euros; Varane is not. It is his fifth, a record only two others can match. One of them plays with him, and always will. Pepe promised it: still here to help.