I don’t hate Weligton. Oh, sure, I like to tweet in all caps about him whenever Barça plays Malaga, invoking angry emojis instead of tactical analysis, but hate? No, when the match is over, I forget about him until the next meeting between the clubs. I have to look at Malaga’s roster to make sure he’s even still playing for them. Then I boo him and make “maul-aga” jokes and sometimes I’ll even link to his various aggressions against Messi, but hate is too strong a word because, simply put, Weligton isn’t good enough to bother hating.
And that’s the thing about Pepe: there is no respite from my dislike of Pepe. To describe him is to make a list of qualities you would wish to avoid in your own child: petulance, violence, and disdain for the rules. To watch him on a typical day is to see the archetypal thin-skinned bully in all his glory: in one moment he’s lashing out furiously, almost psychotically, and in the next he’s rolling on the ground holding some part of his body when lightly brushed by an opponent. Most people will remember his brutal assault of Javi Casquero years ago while others will have legitimate discussions of whether he is mentally fit to play a professional sport, though that glosses over his mastery of the dark arts.
But that’s not why I hate Pepe. That’s too simple. No, I hate Pepe because of the one thing that actually has him playing at the level he is: his talent. It is easy to hate a highly visible, petulant opponent, but, like Cristiano Ronaldo before him, Pepe has entered rarefied air in terms of my dislike of him. Against Poland in the quarterfinals of the Eurocup 2016, Pepe was incredible. Aside from the goal, which really wasn’t his fault, nothing escaped his attention in the Portuguese half. He was fast, strong, and calm. He was everywhere, speeding from one corner of the box to another whenever his attention demanded it. I couldn’t really think of many defenders who could have replaced him last night and done nearly as good a job.
And that is what irks me about him the most. Sure, screams at the TV are available on demand from me during most Barça matches, but as with Weligton, the anger subsides quickly once the principal actors are off the screen. Pepe, on the other hand, is too damned good to merely dismiss. It’s not that he owes anyone anything, but he doesn’t need to play with emotional fire that could seriously injure someone. If Weligton thinks it’s the great leveler to lash out, then Pepe should be well above that mentality simply because he’s better than most of his opponents.
We talk here and on various other parts of the Barça Twitter and Blogosphere Superhighway about Luis Suarez playing up to the line of acceptability. Sometimes he crosses it, but hey, that’s the spark that makes him the player he is, so we can forgive him these relatively minor transgressions, right? Well, no. In fact, we can’t, unless we’re happy with partisan hackery and an us-vs-them mentality that slowly rots the institutions we purport to love from the inside out.
It is convenient to hate Pepe as a brute, a violent psycho, a deranged animal. It is also easy to take the low road because it is more regularly traveled by people who agree with us and has many more lanes than the high route. The high road and dislike, even hate, are not necessarily incompatible, but often the latter is aimed without regard for either consistency or logic. To describe Luis Suarez, one could use many of the words I used to describe Pepe: petulance, violent, and with a disdain for the rules, yet the next thing out of many cules mouths will be that he is our petulant, violent, rule-disregarding punk. To some he’s not too aggressive, he’s competitive, perhaps even to a fault if we’re being generous, but isn’t this a game designed to win and why do we look to athletes as role models anyway.
But Suarez is also not Weligton. Weligton is a good player, who has made a career at one of the highest levels in his profession, but Pepe and Suarez are players who could walk into almost any team on earth and be penciled into the starting lineup. And that is the crux of the problem: Thomas Muller goes down like he’s been shot, rage-screams at referees over minor decisions, and generally acts like an extraordinarily lanky toddler. And then he turns around wins a World Cup, a Champions League, and something like 3000 Bundesliga titles. It’s hard not to hate his face simply because well, have you seen that face? But at the same time, who cares if David Lomban is a big jerk? No one.
Pepe is the type of player that can turn a game through defensive work or, if he’s having one of those red mist days, through excessive violence. Coupled with Sergio Ramos, that’s a volatile defensive line, though Pepe has relatively few red cards compared to his Andalucian colleague. This doesn’t mean he’s not as violent or as aggressive, but instead that he’s better at masking it. In fact, I’d say Pepe is simply a better player than Sergio Ramos, but what do I know? What I do know is that it’s amazing to watch two similar players go head-to-head in an important match.
When you’re so supremely talented that you make most others in your chosen profession regularly look like fools, you’re bound to find enemies among those opponents, but Pepe is hateable precisely because he is not bound by the ideas of civility or professional discourse that we so often attempt to invoke. It’s just that he could be and still remain highly paid and successful, yet chooses instead to do things like this, that makes his face on a TV screen cause me to throw up in my mouth.
No player is a saint–Neymar and Luis Suarez come to mind–nor should they be, but constantly playing the villain will eventually make you one. Tread carefully, Pau Lopez.