Real Madrid – La Liga Revealed all about career at Bernabeu
Pepe has revealed how he struggled to adapt to life at Real Madrid before going on to become one of the club’s most successful centre-backs.
The defender recalled the moment he signed for Los Blancos, his problems with the team’s tactics and his experience of different coaches in an interview with Expresso in Portugal.
“Everything went very quickly but, to be honest, I could’ve left [Porto] sooner,” Pepe said on moving to the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. “Not to Real Madrid, but to Deportivo La Coruna, at the end of my first season at Porto.
“The president, Pinto da Costa, told me: ‘No, no, no, no way, you’re staying here at FC Porto for a bit longer’. But the press kept writing things and Jorge Mendes was saying other things: ‘There’s a club in England that’s interested, as well as this other one…’ Y’know? And the more I played, the more clubs appeared.
“In my third season, I renewed my contract for another five and Real Madrid‘s offer arrived at the end of the campaign, though I had other opportunities.
“And I really wanted to go to Real Madrid, despite lots of people telling me that I was crazy to go there because it was very difficult and, above all, because it was a graveyard for centre-backs.
“At the time, Real Madrid had a hole to fill since [Fernando] Hierro left and I wanted that challenge. They still tried to persuade me otherwise, but I was always very direct: ‘Real Madrid don’t want me? They’re not paying what Porto want? If they’re doing all that, then it’s done’.”
One of the centre-backs at Real Madrid when Pepe arrived was World Cup winner Fabio Cannavaro, who left quite an impression on the new signing.
“In pre-season, I practically didn’t talk – I only trained and watched, because I’m an observer,” Pepe added. “It was about work and more work.
“Then, we were on a plane to Austria and [Cannavaro] happened to sit in front of me. I caught him reading a magazine and, when I realised that he’d finished it and the plane was about to take off, I put on a brave face and asked him: ‘Cannavaro, Cannavaro [speaking in a low voice], can you give me the magazine?’
“And Cannavaro looked back and said to me: ‘Cannavaro? My name is Fabio’. And he turned his back on me. I didn’t know what to do. It was seconds, maybe minutes, but it seemed like an eternity, before he gave me the magazine.”
Playing alongside Cannavaro was more difficult than the young centre-back had first imagined, too.
“My first game was against Atletico Madrid.” Pepe recalled. “I was coming from a club that was organised tactically where, if the ball was on the left, you have to press there. If it was on the right, you pressed there – things like that, the basics.
“And what I came across at Real Madrid was chaos. In the 30th minute, our attack broke down and they came at us one against one and we ran backwards.
“I looked back to Fabio and said to him: ‘Fabio! Fabio! Cover, cover!’ And he said to me: ‘No, no, we don’t do that here. Each person has their own side’. And I was like: ‘It’s like that? F*** me’.
“I was looking around and saw the full-backs high up, the defensive midfielder forward… And I was thinking: ‘What? There’s fifty metres behind me and I’m here to play one against one?'”
Fitting in alongside global stars such as Cannavaro wasn’t easy for an up-and-coming defender.
“It wasn’t an easy dressing room,” Pepe continued. “There, all the players were top internationals. As a result, everyone is important, not only those that start.
“But there’s a brutal pressure: if you win, things are going well, you stay in the team and at the club. If you don’t win, you’re out, another player comes in and is ready. If you don’t perform, you have others waiting that want to put pressure on their place, so you always have to be at your best.”
Later on in his Real Madrid career, Pepe was surrounded by compatriots, including Jose Mourinho as coach.
“Mourinho came to Real Madrid to win La Decima because that was the only thing that mattered. The club only wanted the Champions League. LaLiga was secondary,” Pepe added.
“Mourinho brought a lot of excitement, because he’d won the Champions League with Inter at the Bernabeu, and also lots of organisation and we ended up having three good seasons with him: we won a league title, a Copa del Rey… but we couldn’t win the Champions League.”
La Decima was finally clinched in 2014 when, under Carlo Ancelotti, Pepe was racing to be fit for the final against Atletico Madrid.
“I’d suffered an injury in Valladolid and, if you remember, Diego Costa had gone abroad to have some kind of treatment,” Pepe remembered.
“I didn’t go anywhere. I knew my body and decided that I’d tell the boss if I was fine or not after the last training session. I didn’t train for 15 or 20 days – I was only having treatment after treatment.
“On the eve of the final, in Lisbon, I told Ancelotti: ‘Boss, it still hurts’. He was like: ‘We’ll wait a bit longer and see tomorrow’. The next day, I felt the pain again and realised that I was going to miss the final. ‘Boss, don’t play me’, I told him. ‘You don’t even want to go out just to be in the photo? You deserve it, man’, he replied.
“‘Boss, imagine I go out there, get injured and have to waste a substitute because of it. I don’t need to play the final to feel like a Champions League winner…’ I told him.”
In the end, Pepe would go on to win three Champions League titles at the Bernabeu.
“Me, a boy that slept alongside his mother until 18 years of age, winning three Champions Leagues?” he laughed. “Look, I never imagined it, that’s for sure. I felt I could go far, but winning three never crossed my mind.
“I’m not a person that thinks about the future, either. I think that, the more you imagine, the more you forget the present.”