Brazil inspired by Scolari's dark pragmatism
Forget o jogo bonito. Under 2002-winning coach Luiz Felipe Scolari the Seleção will be happy to brawl their way to glory
Whatever happens now for the Seleção there will be no shame. Brazil are in the semi-finals of the World Cup and the embarrassment of leaving the competition earlier than this in their own country – a genuine fear prior to the tournament – has been avoided.
There is, with the cruel injury to Neymar, and the suspension to captain Thiago Silva, even mitigation should Brazil fall short against Germany – the team who, with their Bayern Munich core, many Brazilians most feared going into the World Cup.
However, while the attention has fallen – inevitably – on Neymar and David Luiz, that most Brazilian of Brazilians, the side’s progress to this stage is really testament to the skills of Luiz Felipe Scolari, the coach who has placed pragmatism over plaudits.
Scolari was quick to recognise the limitations of his squad who, for all the clamour for Jogo Bonito, were never going to out-football their opponents. The 65-year-old’s approach has had echoes of his previous spell with Brazil, when he won the 2002 World Cup, Portugal and even his brief, failed time as Chelsea manager, with the priority placed on creating the so‑called ‘Familia Scolari’.
He wants to be, as he once suggested at Chelsea, the father, uncle, friend and confessor for his players. Devoutly religious, he had led prayer circles, carried iconic statuettes and once required his players to place “holy pebbles” in their socks.
Scolari wants to create the impression that they are part of a tight, closed family with him acting as its avuncular, controlling, occasionally stern patriarch, ready to shoulder the pressure and disperse his players’ fears and darkest thoughts.
And cuff a few ears if need be and also come out swinging on their behalf – quite literally when he was coach of Portugal and, seven years ago, aimed a punch on the head of Serbia’s Ivica Dragutinovic.
It is often why Scolari, during his media briefings, glosses over questions of tactics and team selection and instead indulges in far grander statements. “To all the Brazilians I want to tell you the time has arrived and we are going to go together,” Scolari said before Brazil’s first game in Sao Paulo. “This is our World Cup.”
His words were appropriate: this is Brazil’s World Cup. But the nation knew what it was getting when they turned to ‘Felipao’ to replace Mano Menezes, a more thoughtful but less populist coach. Scolari was expected get his squad of players over the line or as near as possible to it, and by any means possible.
There was a danger, namely that the emotion would become too much and that it would sap the players more than spur them. Sure enough, there have been incidents – not least in that opening game against Croatia and during the intense last-16 tie against Chile – when it seemed to overpower the Brazilian team rather than drive them.
Scolari has reacted to that as well and has done so in a more cynical, predictable fashion. “We’re being too nice and too cordial with our opponents,” he said in the aftermath of the rollercoaster ride that was that afternoon in Belo Horizonte last Saturday against Chile.
Sure enough, this self-confessed brawler and scrapper realised the team were over-reliant on Neymar and changed tack with an even more pragmatic, aggressive approach against Colombia.
Aided by some compliant refereeing, in which the escalating violence went largely unpunished, James Rodríguez, the outstanding performer at this World Cup tournament, was targeted to such an extent that he was reduced to tears at the final whistle.
Not that Brazil were brutal. They were functional. They played the conditions and the occasion and the referee but in a World Cup devoid of the cynicism of previous tournaments they were not thuggish. It was hardly Holland against Spain in the final four years ago.
Not that Scolari will care. He will simply shrug and exasperatingly berate those who question him. After all, before the Colombia match, he had told his critics to “go to hell” and he had hardly made a pact with the devil.
He had simply boiled down his team’s approach to basics. Their last three goals have all come from set pieces. It has become increasingly uncomplicated as the stakes have been raised.
But then survey this Brazil squad. It is packed with functional players – midfielders such as Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho, Hernanes and, to a lesser extent, Fernandinho. The choice of striker is between Fred and Jô, which says it all.
However, it is Scolari’s squad. There are players who have been overlooked and it will not just be Liverpool supporters wondering, again, how Philippe Coutinho does not even warrant a place in the 23 while Chelsea fans will be surprised that Willian has been used so sparingly. He may now get his chance with Neymar’s injury.
Carlos Alberto, the former Brazil captain, predicted that Willian’s moment had arrived but the midfielder is not a prolific goalscorer. In the absence of Neymar and unless Hulk starts to fire, Brazil will have to keep on grinding out results if they are to fulfil Scolari’s “seven steps to heaven”. It may not be a serene ascent if they do.
However, even if Brazil do not prevail and do not reach the World Cup final and win it a week on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro there will be no shame. Scolari’s pragmatism has ensured that will not be the case.