Monday 23 October 2017

'Cowboy' Scolari born to succeed at all costs

Brazil's hopes of glory rest with football's version of dedicated military general

Luiz Felipe Scolari deep in thought during a Brazil training session ahead of their World Cup semi-final clash with Germany. Photo: REUTERS/Marcelo Regua
Luiz Felipe Scolari deep in thought during a Brazil training session ahead of their World Cup semi-final clash with Germany. Photo: REUTERS/Marcelo Regua
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

To understand the personality of this Brazilian team, it is necessary to understand the personality of the man who stands behind it.

Luiz Felipe Scolari, or 'Felipao' as he is simply known in these parts, is two victories away from becoming only the second manager to lift the World Cup twice. Vittorio Pozzo achieved that unique distinction by leading Italy to victory in 1934 and 1938.

If Scolari, who managed Brazil's 2002 winning team, joins that exclusive club without his star man Neymar, he will go down in history as one of the game's greatest international bosses.

With a colourful managerial CV consisting of 22 different jobs in a variety of locations, and an approach to the game that is at odds with the traditional depiction of Brazil's beautiful game, the 65-year-old is already a man apart.

Scolari is very much an individual who represents the values of his background.

He hails from the southern region of Rio Grande do Sul, an area which has a distinctive identity within this vast country.

The population is dominated by the diaspora of European immigrants and the weather is temperamental; it is a part of Brazil which knows what it is like to experience a winter.


Their citizens are known as gauchos, the South American equivalent of cowboys, although they are a people more readily associated with Argentina and Uruguay.

Their origins are rural and Scolari, who has Italian ancestry, comes from a family which migrated in the late 1890s and worked on the farmlands in the north of the state. He was 16 when his clan moved 300km south to the state capital of Porto Alegre.

As a teenager, Scolari tried out for Internacional's youth squad but he made the pragmatic decision to say no when they offered him a contract because it was worth less than what he was earning as a petrol pump attendant in his uncle's gas station.

Eventually, he plied his trade for the less glamourous Caxias, Juventude, and Novo Hamburgo (new Hamburg) in a modest playing career. He was christened Felipao (Big Phil) by a journalist due to his power.

Coaching became his passion, with ex-military man Carlos Benevenuto Froner, a former boss of both Gremio and Internacional, by far his biggest influence after their paths crossed at Caxias.

A superb profile of Scolari by acclaimed Brazilian journalist Daniel Galera in the cultural magazine 'Revista Piaui' explains how 'Captain Froner' became Felipao's role model.

"He demanded implacable marking, tactical obedience and total dedication," writes Galera. "He was a specialist in riling up players in the locker room with a torrent of curses and treated the press to lashes of the whip."

Today, that is the Scolari template, with all these features evident on Brazil's emotional charge towards tonight's semi-final with Germany.

The Gene Hackman lookalike – he tells a story about signing an autograph as Hackman for an Italian waiter who was convinced he was serving the actor – entered management after a short spell lining out with CSA, an operation based in the state of Alagoas.

Juventude were next and from there he embarked on a rollercoaster journey where he moved up the ladder at home, but interspersed that climb with lucrative stints further afield.

The kid from the petrol station still appreciated the value of financial security. He had spells in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and was in charge of the latter when the Gulf War broke out in 1990. Fortunately, he was in France at a training camp when Iraq invaded.

A decade later, his own propensity towards conflict was notorious. Felipao had moved to Sao Paulo to take charge of Palmeiras in 1997 after three years in control of Gremio and another pocket filling exercise in Japan.

After losing 4-3 to Corinthians in a Copa Libertadores tie in 2000, audio leaked of the irate boss tearing into his players afterwards.

His beef was that they weren't aggressive enough, with no knowledge of how to punch and kick, and Scolari urged them to feel the rage and bite the ears of Corinthians players in the second leg.

In response, his fired-up squad eked out a 3-2 victory and progressed via penalties.

After Brazil's spot-kick triumph over Chile 10 days ago, Scolari revisited that territory, albeit in slightly politer terms, by complaining that his players were too nice.

This is what set the tone for the physical and ultimately successful dismissal of Colombia. Textbook Felipao, according to long-standing observers. Palmeiras was an eye-opening experience for him. It was his first proper taste of Sao Paulo, where his methods weren't universally welcomed.

"In Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, people are used to technical, skilled football, but in Rio Grande do Sul the emphasis is on physical play," he said in a 2011 interview.

"Because of that, my teams may not play beautifully, which initially drew some criticism. But we were organised and productive, and with time people started to see that such a style pays off."

That's why he was handed the reins for Korea and Japan in 2002, altering the tactics to go with three at the back, ignoring the reservations of Pele amongst others, and efficiently getting the job done.

Man-management skills were pinpointed as a central reason for Brazil's fifth World Cup win.

Felipao could rant and rave, yet he is regarded as having emotional intelligence and afforded special treatment to Rivaldo, a player who did not appreciate that approach.

Crucially, he created a siege mentality within the squad. Each traveller was given photocopies of Sun Tzu's 'Art Of War', an ancient Chinese tome which outlined how to execute a strategy with military precision.

Scolari kept diary notes with a trusted journalist – one of a select few – and detailed pre-match team-talks which began with tactical chat and concluded with motivational speeches, music, videos and even a presentation of perceived press slights from around the world. The formula worked.


From there, the devout Catholic embarked on a five-year stint with Portugal where he brought them to the brink of success without getting across the line. The Euro 2004 final loss to Greece was a bitter disappointment.

His high-profile return to the club sphere with Chelsea was a spectacular failure as he struggled to assert authority in an environment that was controlled by a cabal of senior stars. His attempts to get rid of Didier Drogba were misjudged and Roman Abramovich pulled the plug just seven months into his contract.

Bizarrely enough, his next port of call was Uzbekistan, another move totally in keeping with a wanderlust that has made him very wealthy.

That was followed by a couple more years with Palmeiras, but the pull of leading Brazil again was too strong when they came calling in 2012.

"If we can, we will play the beautiful game and win," he told the 'New York Times' last year. "If not, we will just win."

His life's work has always concentrated on the bottom line, and that's all he is interested today.

Scaling the heights with this limited Brazilian group could be too much to ask but, whatever happens, Felipao's public know their boys will go down fighting.


Irish Independent

Editor's Choice

Also in Sport