“When I arrived in Portugal, I was at the airport and I only had five euros. I could buy a phone card and call my mum or buy something to eat. I decided to call my mum. Then, hungry, I went to a fast food store and asked the employee if he had anything to eat. He offered me a baguette. That gesture stayed with me for the rest of my life. I am what I am because Portugal gave me everything.”
The harrowing experience is well-known for many Brazilian players that are coming to Europe to make a living through football. Sure, there are plenty of teams that are just ready to take the chance on some youngsters, but for defenders, players that are not technically gifted, the market is scarce.
This is why, at 18 years old, Kepler Laveran de Lima Ferreira – better known as Pepe – moved from Brazil to Portugal with another teammate, trying to make his way into football. He went to the island of Madeira, where he featured for Maritimo Funchal for three years.
Then, the big break came: the imposing guy, who looked like a bodyguard and had a thick Brazilian accent, was signed by Portuguese giants FC Porto for only €2 million, enabling him to take another step in his story.
What plenty do not know, is that Pepe’s life has hardly been easy and the product of what he always did on the pitch was securing a better life for himself and his family. But even before going to Portugal he has defied limits and conventions.
His father hoped that Pepe was going to become a scientist, taking an encyclopaedia from his bookcase before his son was born to pick a name. He settled on two – Kepler, in the memory of a German astronomer, and Laveran, the French physician who won a Nobel Prize for his work in 1907.
“He is surely going to become a scientist,” was the message told to his friends by Pepe’s father.
The defender grew up with a strong affection for his mother, spending plenty of time with her and even sleeping in his parents’ bed until he was 17 years old. Then, he came to Portugal, with a broken foot, after a late challenge from an opponent in his last match played in Brazil.
But he thrived on adversity, even if he had to sacrifice a lot. “I was seeing that I was going to live home to thrive in life. So whenever my sisters or friends went out, I spent time with my family,” says Pepe.
This is what made him the man he is today – the oldest-ever player to don a Portugal shirt in the history of the FIFA World Cup and the oldest-ever scorer for the European side in the history of the team and of the competition.
Yet his start was humble and full of rejections: Sporting Lisbon came after him, but the transfer failed to materialise. Instead, it was Porto who hit and they did excellent, as in three years, Pepe left for Real Madrid and the “Dragons” had €30 million to spend to improve their team.
At Real, Pepe not only became a villain, very well known for his antics on the pitch, he was also starting to create a legacy for himself, an excellent defender, a no-nonsense player, who was cementing the back line, while others like Cristiano Ronaldo or Karim Benzema were scoring at free will in the attack.
In the end, though, the small kid who left Brazil with five euros and went to Portugal not going what is about to happen came of age and became one of the best defenders in football. With Real Madrid, he won the UEFA Champions League and the Spanish league three times.
“I, a boy who slept with his mother until he was 18, could win three Champions Leagues. Look, I never imagined, it’s true. I felt I could go far, but winning three never crossed my mind. But I’ve never been much of a forward thinker either. I believe that the more you project, the more you forget the present,” said Pepe in an interview for Portuguese outlet Tribuna Expresso.
While he is technically a Brazilian, he got Portuguese citizenship in 2007, after declining a call-up from Brazil in 2006. Ultimately, he went on and played 133 matches for Portugal, becoming the third most capped player in history, after Cristiano Ronaldo and Joao Moutinho.
He was key in winning the UEFA EURO 2016 and the UEFA Nations League 2018/19 and also became the oldest player in history to score a goal in the knockout phases at the FIFA World Cup, aged 39 years and 283 days old.
But he could still not deliver the trophy for Portugal, as his header in the 96th minute of the quarter-final against Morocco went wide. A true leader, Pepe bowed out in tears at Qatar 2022. Yet his legacy will still remain as one of the best-ever players to have played for Portugal in the team’s history.