His signing for Besiktas, in Turkey, after Raphaël Varane had dislodged him from his starting place at Real Madrid, sounded like a pre-retirement. It was 2017, six and a half years ago. Pepe was “only” 34 then, he is now 41 and the Champions League remains his backyard. Against Arsenal, in the round of 16 first leg three weeks ago, the defender was crucial in the Dragons’ victory (1-0). He received praise from a legendary colleague, Rio Ferdinand.

“It’s crazy. I asked him, “How do you do it?” He told me, “I’m still strong.” At that level, it’s in the head,” marveled the former captain of Manchester United and England, now a consultant for the TNT channel, who came to hug Pepe at the edge of the pitch. Captain of Porto, he celebrated his 41st birthday five days after the match, on February 26. He is the 5th most used outfield player by Sergio Conceição this season (27 matches, 27 starts), and has not missed any of Porto’s 13 matches in 2024.

He is a rock, in every sense of the word, more comfortable than ever in a low block as was the case against Arsenal, always imperial in the duels, lucid in his tackles and with high intensity races which does not betray his age. “It’s incredible,” applauded former Brazilian international Zé Roberto in the columns of the newspaper O Jogo. He pushed himself until he was 43, he left Bayern Munich when he was only 35, and finished his career between Qatar and Brazil.

“Few players will manage to be at this level in the Champions League at 41. This is proof of exceptional dedication to physical fitness and all his professionalism,” said Zé Roberto. Qualities overshadowed by his sulphurous reputation. Pepe has often had the image of a violent player, the fault of infrequent but notable outbursts. Particularly during his first years at Real Madrid, where he indirectly resented his coach José Mourinho, not the last to add fuel to the fire. “Ancelotti brought us a lot of serenity,” the defender later praised.

Pepe found some peace in Porto, after winning everything at Real (3 Champions League, 3 La Liga, 3 Club World Cups, etc.). He returned in 2019 to the club that revealed him, and has appeared in the standard team of the Portuguese championship every season since. “It’s an example for any player who wants to play in the Champions League,” underlined Seleção coach Roberto Martinez.

Of matches in C1, Pepe has 119, four more than the eleven starting players of Arsenal against Porto in the first leg combined. He is also the oldest outfield player in the history of the Champions League, and its oldest scorer after scoring against Shakhtar Donetsk on December 13 (5-3 victory).

Absent due to injury during the last international breaks, he should nevertheless experience Euro 2024. “He has experience, a will, and a work ethic which is very contagious for others around him,” listed Roberto Martinez in January. The future remains unclear: Pepe is at the end of his contract at Porto and there is no indication of a contract extension.

Last year, he waited until the end of April to renew his lease. The Dragons were already eliminated from the Champions League by the future finalist, Inter Milan, whom they had pushed to their limits (0-0, 1-0). This year, Arsenal have their backs against the wall heading into the second leg. The opportunity for Porto, and especially Pepe, to push the limits. One more time.