As if failing to beat Barcelona in their last seven home games against them and losing the last three "clasicos" were not enough, Real Madrid fans were yesterday recoiling at the thought that while their rivals have the world's most adored player ... they have the world's most abhorred.
Pepe stamping on Lionel Messi's hand was the enduring image of Real Madrid's latest capitulation against their great rivals and the latest in a long line of the Portugal international's crimes against football. Even by his standards his behaviour had been, as the Madrid-supporting paper Marca described it yesterday, "embarrassing".
Last night, Pepe apologised. However, he also claimed that his actions had been "unintentional". He said: "I wish to say yesterday's incident with Leo Messi was unintentional, but I nevertheless want to apologise to him if he was offended because all I do is defend my team and this institution. I give my heart and soul, and the thought of hurting a colleague has never entered my mind."
Pepe's first-half yellow card, for a late lunge at Sergi Busquet's ankle, was predictable – it was his eighth card in 11 games against Barça. He could argue it went with the midfield ball-winning territory. But his feigning of an injury to the face after a brush with Cesc Fabregas was pitiful and his stepping on Messi's hand was just plain cynical.
"A poor man's Puyol" would be a generous description of a player who has been sent off five times in his Real career. The Barcelona captain possesses all of Pepe's aggression but channels it into scoring crucial goals, making saving tackles and winning matches. Yet the worst thing about Pepe from the point of view of his manager, Jose Mourinho, may be that discipline aside, he is just not good enough. Not good enough to justify the near-€30m Real paid for him in 2007.
Pepe was dozing four minutes in to the second half, when who else but Puyol ghosted in front of him to head Barcelona level. Asked if action would be taken over the stamp on Messi, Mourinho said: "If it was deliberate then yes."
The manager was too busy fuming at the goal Madrid had conceded due to Pepe's error to put up any greater defence.
"Pepe treading on Messi was senseless and lamentable," said Barcelona's Xavi. Puyol added: "When the ball is in play then you can say, 'Well, that's football,' but when the ball has gone it is unacceptable. Someone should take action."
Mourinho could at least be grateful that some of the fallout from yet another loss to Barcelona was focusing on Pepe not being fit to wear Real's famous white shirt, and not on whether he was fit to out-think Pep Guardiola. In nine games against him Mourinho has won once, drawn three and lost five. A worst-case scenario is that Real draw Barcelona in the Champions League and lose both legs. Mourinho could win the Spanish league and yet have been beaten by Barça in his last seven matches. He was asked how he would feel if he failed to beat Barça but still won the league?
"I will feel great," he said.
A cup exit next week certainly would not be the end of Real's season, but there is going out with dignity and there is going out in shame.