Deciphering Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazilian football’s most decorated and enduring manager

Deciphering Luiz Felipe Scolari, Brazilian football’s most decorated and enduring manager

You may have heard of the expression ‘Sarrism’ – a term to describe the way that teams managed by Maurizio Sarri, the eccentric Italian coach, play. It’s a “fast-paced, possession-based style of playing football”, as defined by Treccani, the most famous Italian encyclopedia, who added the word ‘Sarrismo’ as a neologism not long ago.

Across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s fair to say that another football coach, a decade older than the Tuscan, also deserves to be granted with a word to define his own style of football. Indeed, Luiz Felipe Scolari, the Brazilian coach, carries ‘Scolarismo’ with him. 

The former Chelsea and Portugal boss was a no-nonsense defender during his playing career in the 1970s. As a centre-back for Caxias RS, Scolari was more known by his brute strength than for his skills with the ball. Reports and photos from the time indicate an unforgiving footballer, one who’d later take that into his managerial career.

This belief, in rugged, to-the-point football, carried over immediately in his career on the other side of the touchline, which began in 1982 at CSA-AL. Ironically, in the same year, football aficionados were wowed and shocked by the beauty of the Brazil national team at the World Cup in Spain. It was a year of contrasts.

Scolari’s early philosophy, which focused on pragmatic, aggressive football, carried him through to his first championship in the 1990s, earmarking him out both for its unique perspective in Brazil and for the way he executed it. Scolari, no matter which way you looked at him, was unmistakable in his homeland.

Felipão, as he’d become known, saw ugly football as a means to an end, with victory the only aim. In the modern era, it’s a philosophy that José Mourinho has adopted of late. Criciúma, Grêmio and Palmeiras, the three Brazilian teams managed by Scolari in the 1990s, had three things in common: solid defences, clinical attacks, and a team spirit that bordered on the breakable.

This unique blend threw up season after season of narrow wins – and a remarkable haul of trophies. On his way to becoming one of the best managers outside of Europe, Scolari would twice lift the Copa Libertadores – with Gremio in 1995 and Palmeiras in 1999 – as well as a Brasileiro, two Brazilian Cups and the South American Coach of the Year award.

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Scolari’s teams played in a classic 4-4-2, with out-and-out defenders (Rivarola, Roque Júnior and Júnior Baiano), full-backs that pressed forward at every opportunity (Arce, Júnior and Roger), two consistent defensive midfielders (César Sampaio, Dinho), two creative attacking midfielders (Alex, Carlos Miguel), a target man (like Mario Jardel, Oséas) and a quick second-striker (Paulo Nunes). The wheel wasn’t reinvented and his teams rarely took opponents by surprise. It was low defensive blocks, quick transitions and counters – and it worked to perfection.

Another of Scolari’s trademarks during these years was his peculiar behaviour, something the world would later witness, internally, with the players, and externally, with the press. For him, the changing room is a sacred place and, through all the ones he’s led, he’s reinforced that belief in his players. Even at Chelsea, when things went south, he kept his players close, fostering a unified spirit.

For journalists, however, Scolari’s insistence on a closed camp led many to portray him as a comedic figure, scared of leaks and access to his stars. Indeed, between punch-ups and heated verbal exchanges at press conferences, Scolari’s relationship with the press was always strained. Perhaps that’s why he’s never been given the credit he fully deserves – or at least his record deserves. It’s no exaggeration to state that Felipão is the best Brazilian coach of the last 25 years.

By 2001, with two Libertadores titles behind him and domestic glory in his homeland, Scolari was appointed Brazil manager. A year later, he’d become immortal.

In Korea and Japan, at the 2002 World Cup, Scolari shifted from his traditional formation to a 3-5-2 and bet all his chips on Rivaldo and Ronaldo – both available after lengthy injuries – and bright young star, Ronaldinho. With various other stars like Djalminha, Márcio Amoroso and Giovane Élber omitted from the squad, it was a gamble that paid immense dividends.

The trio scored 15 of the Seleção’s 18 goals in the tournament. They complimented a quite brilliant defence, with Lúcio, Edmílson, and Roque Júnior the centre-backs, and Cafu and Roberto Carlos patrollign the flanks.

With a talented team backed-up by a solid second string, Scolari felt confident enough to mould his well-set system, granting his attack more freedom than ever. The class of 2002 became known as the Família Scolari, consolidating the idea that the coach was a father figure to his “family” of players, creating an environment of loyalty and companionship fondly remembered by his star turns to this day.

Order  |  Brazil

Perhaps the most defining aspect of Scolarismo came to the fore prior to the finals. With the press, and many Brazilian fans, urging the manager to select the great RomárioFelipão trusted his instinct, leaving the 1994 champion at home, much to the chagrin of the media. He took the punches, threw some back, and headed to the Far East with supreme confidence.

The win in 2002 saw the world learn the name Luiz Felipe Scolari. From Brazil he’d head to the land of Pedro Álvares Cabral, taking charge of the Portugal national team. A runners-up finish at Euro 2004, fourth place at the 2006 World Cup and, most importantly, the return of a nation’s pride in their team led to his ascension to one of the world’s most in-demand coaches. The journey was, of course, typically Scolari.

Disagreements with the press were rife from day one, while his contempt for Vitor Baía was reminiscent of his exclusion of Romário. Beyond that, however, in creating another Familia Scolari, the Brazilian would shape a young Cristiano Ronaldo and build a team that was at times greater than the sum of its parts. It was classic Scolari.

With his work in Portugal complete, in 2008 Scolari was invited to try his hand for the first time at a major European club power, lured to London at the personal request of Roman Abramovich. His mission was to make Chelsea champions of Europe for the first time and justify his Russian boss’s considerable spending. It was tough but by no means impossible, given the number of world-class stars in the squad.

From day one, however, a frosty relationship with the media – who once championed for his arrival – saw Scolari on the back foot, his blunt, at times harsh, nature too much, it seemed, for some to handle. But that was all part of Scolarismo – it was always ‘us against them’.

Used to controlling big personalities, tough love at international level was OK in small doses, but when seeing the players every day, it resulted in various clashes, most notably with Michael Ballack, Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba. In the Ivorian’s case, Felipão had tried to orchestrate a swap deal with Adriano of Inter, but when the deal broke down, the much-loved Blues star took it personally.

Ballack’s issues would arise when he was relegated to the bench in favour of new addition Deco, who immediately shone in the Blues’ line-up. While criticised by many at the time, in hindsight, it was a wise decision, with Ballack’s tiring legs and demanding nature never likely to win much credit with the Brazilian.

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Anelka’s issues were typical to the man. Asked to play off the left, he refused. The result? A drop to the bench. Discipline mattered to Scolari; it had taken him to major titles at club and international level.

With his English poor and miscommunication rife, not to mention a pragmatic style that didn’t endear him to the Stamford Bridge faithful, Scolari was sacked after seven months, one of a number of failed managerial decisions in the Abramovich era.

Sadly, his firing from Chelsea saw Scolari’s image take a beating in Europe that he’s never recovered from. With big clubs wary of his authoritarian methods, and others unsure of the football his teams would play, Scolari’s Eurotrip was over.

In a surprise move, Scolari would next head to Uzbekistan where, as the coach of Bunyodkor, Felipão became the highest-paid manager in the world in 2009, with a salary of €16.6m, more than José Mourinho at Inter and Fabio Capello with England.

With his pockets filled, Felipão headed back to Brazil to his much-loved Palmeiras, the São Paulo giants he took to the Copa Libertadores in 1999. You know the formula by now: arguments with the press and minimalist football on the pitch. The result: another Copa do Brasil with the Verdão in 2012.

Later that year he’d return to the Brazil fold in the hope of leading a talented but uninspiring set of players to glory in their home World Cup, with Neymar, Oscar, Willian, Luiz Gustavo, Thiago Silva, Dani Alves and Marcelo all expected to shine in front of their delirious fans. If 2002 was glory that they Brazil fans dreamt of, 2014 was one they demanded.

Much like a decade earlier, the Família Scolari was quickly formed. Things started well, lifting the 2013 Confederations Cup against Spain, still considered the premier force in world football. Felipão was even able to acquire the trust of the press, with an uncommon ceasefire with journalists setting a more friendly tone – temporarily at least.

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July 8, 2014, would change all of that, though. A 7-1 defeat to Germany – a national humiliation – later, Scolari was booted off his throne, his methods deemed backwards, regressive and against the essence of Brazilian football. How quickly his previous endeavour were forgotten. It was Europe all over again.

With a lack of opportunities in South America, Felipão decided to leave Brazil again, chasing hefty pay-packets and new challenges. Landing in China as the coach of Guangzhou Evergrande, Scolari bagged seven titles in two years, including the AFC Champions League in 2015 and three Super League titles in as many years between 2015 and 2017. With some Brazilians in the team and no issue with the Chinese press, Scolari enjoyed relative peace for the first time.

Time passed, Brazil failed at another World Cup (no blame on Scolari this time), and a familiar name came calling – Palmeiras. Seventh in 2018 Brasileirão after several high-profile and expensive signings failed to shine, the club took their safest possible bet by bringing Scolari back in from the cold.

When Scolari arrived, Palmeiras had 23 points, eight short of the leaders, Flamengo. Four months and 22 games later, the Verdão were crowned champions, with 80 points, eight ahead of their nearest challengers. The title reinstated Scolari back to his throne as Brazil’s best manager – a supreme leader, a canny tactician and a passionate lover of the sport.

Some journalists may say that his tactics and style of coaching are a detriment to the development of football, especially in a nation like Brazil that has often looked to ojogo bonito for national pride. That does him a disservice. Beyond the importance of winning tropies – in reality, nothing is more important in football, and nobody is as decorated in Brazilian history – Felipão’s latest spell at Palmeiras proves that his methods are timeless. Scolari was a winner in 1982 when he began his journey. Thirty-seven years later, he’s still winning.

So what’s his secret? If you don’t know by now, you haven’t been paying attention. It all boils down to a good defence, a minimalist system, a squad that feels like a family, and a “us versus them” nature. Start here and the rest will fall into place. That’s pure Scolarismo.

By Fábio Felice @felicefabio

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