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The headline writers will find it hard to resist the temptation. By offering the post of national team manager to a Brazilian, the Football Association will inevitably be accused of opting for “samba soccer”. Luiz Felipe Scolari, though, dances to a very different rhythm – if he dances at all.
There is not the faintest scent of Rio Carnival hedonism about him. Instead he is almost a caricature of the gaucho from Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul. Plain spoken and down to earth, they are Brazil’s equivalent of the Yorkshireman.
Self-consciously unsophisticated and uncompromising, Scolari has carved out a highly successful coaching career in which natural charisma and strength of character have played a huge part. Media pressure has washed off him and star players have been obliged to toe the line.
It all makes him somewhat reminiscent of a Brazilian Brian Clough, though with the razor wit substituted by an interest in team bonding exercises. If one factor can be said to have underpinned Scolari’s success then it surely is the capacity to form a cohesive group under his leadership.
Tactically he has been successful with a variety of approaches. At first he was branded a mere advocate of the “gaucho” style; the region is the part of Brazil where the European influence is strongest. This is clearly reflected in the football, which has historically tended to be faster, stronger and less artistic than the game played elsewhere in the giant country.
A vigorous centre-back in his mediocre playing days, Scolari made his name as a coach with Gremio, a side who marked tight, pressed the opponents high up the field and sent in a barrage of crosses for a giant centre forward. This was basically the style with which he won the Copa Libertadores, South America’s equivalent of the Champions League, with both Gremio and Palmeiras.
But when he took on the Brazil national job in mid-2001 he began to show his versatility. The team he inherited was struggling to secure a place in the following year’s World Cup, but in little more than 12 months he took them from dubious qualifiers to tournament winners.
On the way he bravely introduced a much criticised three centre-backs system, and eventually went with a front three of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho, demonstrating that he could build his attack around skill rather than just height and power.
In his subsequent spell with Portugal’s national team, he has continued to show that he can work with different systems and has an intuitive gift for switching game-plans during a match.
But whatever the tactical approach, the constant has been his emphasis on uniting the players behind the common cause. In Brazil he found this task relatively easy. In an environment where many of the players lost or never had a stable father, Scolari saw that he could establish himself as a paternal figure.
In 2002 it was so successful that Brazil’s World Cup squad were known as “The Scolari family”. There was plenty of tub-thumping, collective motivational work based on the players’ simple religious faith.
Scolari was quick to accept that such methods would need to be adapted if he was to succeed with Portugal. He found the players much more introverted. In truth, they were less emotionally vulnerable. Finding a common denominator proved much more difficult. He concluded that the best way of getting through to them was to carry out the motivational work on an individual basis.
For this adaptability, this capacity to identify the need for change and implement an alternative strategy, he was described as “a genius” by Brazilian sports psychologist Regina Brandão, who has worked with him on both sides of the Atlantic.
This genius, though, may about to be tested as never before. Brazilians like to joke that Portugal is halfway to Europe. Scolari is now set to make the complete journey.
Could he form a bond with players from a culture of which he has little understanding, using a language of which he has as yet limited command? How will he cope with a style of press that he has never encountered before?
Scolari is on record as admiring General Augusto Pinochet, Chile’s former dictator, scorning homosexuals and admitting that he sends his players out to commit fouls. These and his other opinions will all become part of the national interest.
Scolari may not dance the samba. But he is likely to need an extremely flexible wriggle to get out of some of the problems that will be coming his way if he takes the England job.
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