Surprise, surprise - Real Madrid and Barcelona will square off in this year's King's Cup. Rivalries breed and feed on contempt, and each team features players that rub the other clubs' fans the wrong way. "Sergio Busquets is a diver!" Shout Madrid fans. "Angel Di Maria is a diver!" Cry cules. "Victor Valdes is only reasonably competent!" Yell Madrid fans. "He's better than Pinto!" Reply cules. And so on. But one player stands among the typical bickering and transcends fan grudges: Real Madrid's Kepler Laveran Lima Ferreira, aka "Pepe."
Why do you hate Pepe? Looking beyond particulars such as that Messi hand stamp (and subsequent disingenuous apology that would make Lance Armstrong look sincere), the reasons you hate Pepe can be easily classified. However, here's the odd part: the reasons you hate Pepe are also the reasons you should (and deep down do) love him. In fact, during most clasicos, you can hardly take your eyes off the lurking Portuguese defender.
Conceptually, here's how you view and judge Pepe without knowing it:
1) Pepe as Counter-counter-counterculture Icon
Soccer has gained a foothold in the United States of America, yet remains below the top-tier sports like baseball, football, and basketball. In a nether region between hockey and lacrosse, American fans of soccer can still safely label themselves counterculture. If you sipped a micro-brewed beer at a NASCAR track, you may not make it home alive. If, however, you sipped a micro-brewed beer at an MLS game, the guy next to you in Woody Allen glasses would make a remark about a superior and "more local" alternative.
Within this counterculture, a certain hierarchy of teams exist. If you like Manchester United or Real Madrid and have been following soccer for more than five years, then you must be a bandwagoner. Thanks to the mid-2000 Ronaldinho revolution, Barcelona is counter-counterculture. The club rejected shirt sponsors for decades and has political ties to an independence movement. Thus, American cules can pride themselves on being two steps ahead of the trend: they are counter-counterculture.
The current Barcelona attack flows like the ocean at high tide, but Pepe is the rock. Barca hates him because of his petulant fouls, but also for a simple reason: it is his job to break up the Catalan attacks. And he does a decent job of it. Thus, the fact that counter-counterculture folk dislike Pepe is a great reason to defend him and stand by him and thus form part of the vanguard, the uber-trendy counter-counter-counter-culture.
2) Pepe as Physical Embodiment of a Heterosexist Masculine Identity that Never Existed
In all sports, guys in suits on TV like to say "Everybody overlooks defense" and try to sound smart. Soccer is no exception. Soccer may lack the concussive full-body tackles of football or body-checks of hockey, but play can still get nasty. Thus, many folks can and do try to defend folks like Pepe by painting them as uber-strong gladiators of the 21st century. They'd have you believe that Pepe eats nails for breakfast, growls at pitbulls, and is constantly ripping the sleeves of his shirts when inadvertently flexing his biceps.
Pepe does not eat nails, he avoids all dogs larger than a teacup poodle, and he has not ripped a shirtsleeve in years. The so-called warriors of yesteryear comfortably wrestled in the nude and were pretty friendly with adolescent pages. The history you long for is tainted by the present, and Pepe can never unwrite it nor bring it back to life. Defense has and always will be pretty boring and overlooked. And nobody in a tie stating the uninteresting obvious can or will change that.
3) Pepe as Bogey Man and/or "El Coco"
As a young child, one set of my friends was terrified of the “Bogey Man.” This dude allegedly lived in the closet or under the bed and waited at night to come out and terrify kids. Here's the problem: my other set of friends (Spanish-speakers), referred to a similar entity but his/her/its name was “El Coco.” So, was it Coco or Bogey Man in the closet? I hoped for Bogey. Why? Well, the name is inherently dopey. I imagined a gigantic booger sliding under the door's crack, and who couldn't outrun such a creature? As for El Coco, well, “coco” means coconut, and coconuts are quite hard. If a coconut hits your cranium, it will at least leave a bruise. That's much worse.
Neither the Bogey Man nor El Coco exist. Rather, like the dark, they terrify human beings because they represent uncertainty, doubt, ambiguity, the unknown. So does Pepe. Pepe frightens you because his tackles into Messi symbolize the inevitable: injury, hurt, pain, suffering. You love Messi. Messi plays soccer. Messi is human. Messi gets tackled. Messi will get injured. When? We don't know. How? We don't know. How bad will it be? We don't know. We only know.....it will happen. To our horror. And Pepe is the closest approximation we can point the finger at.
4) Pepe as Lorenzo Lamas Stunt-double
To put it simply, Pepe's job is to administer pain to other players. He tackles, he slides, he pushes, he clutches, he grabs, he yanks. However, in doing so, Pepe also harms himself. Soccer players can't rely on shoulder pads or helmets to soften blows. Shin guards offer scant protection. Thus, when Pepe tears your favorite player's ACL with a studs-up tackle from behind, he suffers collateral damage (light bruising) to his delicate metatarsals. Poor Pepe. Like a leather-vested and long-haired body double of an 80's icon, pundits respect that he “puts his body on the line.” Barca has Captain Puyol, who has bruised or broken every part his body in service to the cule cause. Madrid has Pepe. One is hated. One is loved.
With those points in mind, the King's Cup semifinal offers a grim prospect: no Pepe. Allegedly, he has suffered an injury and may not be available. Of course, coaches in all sports play mindgames and sometimes exaggerate an injury to the press in order to really just rest a player without scrutiny. I think we'll see Pepe play, even if he's not 100%. If he doesn't, then both Madrid and Barca fans will see a gaping hole in Real's backline – no other plays quite “Pepes” like Pepe.
Like the villains in classic WWF bouts, Pepe is the soccer defender you love to hate or love because he's hated. We'll never respect defenders as much as forwards and he's nothing like those macho men who never existed, but he draws in our eyes like a black hole sucks in light. Don't dare to blink.