Luiz Felipe Scolari: Stand by your men - mantra of Portugal's big adventurer

Fortune favours the brave, and they don't come braver than Scolari. Nick Townsend in Lisbon meets a Brazilian born to lead - and to win
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One figure dominates the political landscape here, and with all respect to the newly proposed next president of the European Commission, it is not Prime Minister Durao Barroso. As the fly-posters papering every available space of wall throughout this city inform us, it is Felipe Scolari: 1o [first] Minister de Portugal, this redoubtable character whose tracksuited figure somehow conjures an impression of Ken Livingstone stoned at a rave as he stands flailing his fists at the heavens.

Three weeks ago, attitudes ranged between philosophical acceptance of the natural order of things - Portugal's perennial flattery to deceive - and outright contempt following the defeat by Greece in the inaugural Euro 2004 contest in Porto. Yet, after that inauspicious start, confidence has flowed copiously.

Now, last Thursday morning, with Portugal still rousing itself from its collective alcohol-fuelled torpor at the most recent turn of events, the Brazilian-born coach strolls unexpectedly through the media centre at the country's training camp. Not to make himself available to the assembled throng, you understand, merely to show a friend round the facility. Just the kind of thing you do when your adopted nation has just secured a place in its first major final and you are on the cusp of achieving a remarkable record: the first coach to claim a World Cup-European Championship double with different teams, and the first non-native coach to lead a country to the European Championship.

There is an impromptu burst of applause. The Portuguese media here do not possess the cynical natures of their English counterparts, but it's difficult to envisage Sven Goran Eriksson receiving such a response. Ever.

There had been a similar reaction from the Portuguese "fans with laptops" the night before at the Stadium of Light when, with a touch of theatrics, to which he is partial, Scolari had placed his wedding ring on his finger to signify the continuation of his "marriage" to the national federation for another two years. It is a marriage which will be blessed by a hundred thousand car horns should Portugal prevail in what Scolari deemed "the most important game of my life" yesterday. He added: "It marks an end to two years of hard work, of many dreams. I would be very happy if we can make the most important dream come true."

Filipao (Big Phil) and Sergeao (The Sarge) are among the epithets for this authoritarian coach, whose politically incorrect observations - "I don't talk to Spaniards. This is war. It is a case of kill or die", was his reaction to an interview request from a Spanish radio station on the eve of Portugal's match with the old enemy - are reminiscent of another Sergeant Phil to those of us of a certain age. Bilko, that is. The collected wit and wisdom of "Big Phil", including such bon mots as: "I prefer to play ugly and win", is a fast-expanding volume.

Though he appears to live on his nerves, he actually survives on intuitive judgement of how a match is developing. Even when he gets it profoundly "wrong", fortune appears to favour him, although he replies caustically to that thought: "Yes, I have won 16 lucky titles in my career." If there is a genius about Scolari, it lies in his appreciation of the complexity of a contest, and his ability to effect on-the-spot repairs if his initial judgement has proved erroneous. Five of Portugal's six goals before the semi-final were scored by substitutes.

His omission of that magnificent mopper-up of midfield mayhem, the central defender Ricardo Carvalho, in the first game; a refusal to countenance Cristiano Ronaldo in his initial starting line-up; his perseverance with the disappointing Pauleta; all these decisions provoked a furrowing of the brow. Then there was that furore over the deployment of the Brazilian-born Deco in the squad, prompting captain Figo's disparaging remark: "You can learn national anthems, but not feel them."

Such moments provide an exacting examination of any coach's mettle; even a World Cup winner. Initially, there was scepticism about Scolari's durability. Yet, when a national team have, like the Starship Enterprise, boldly gone to a hitherto unexplored world, where a trophy is suddenly within clutching distance, who would condemn him now? Not a soul in this nation starved for so long of such riches.

The defeat of England was a tight, nervous occasion. Against Holland, for all but a last clammy-hand half-hour, there was a transition of tone. Just as at Glastonbury a week ago, when a lone Beatle was followed by a rendition of the Ride Of The Valkyries, so Rooney-mania yielded to the grandeur of Figo and the ensemble he orchestrates as Scolari's on-field lieutenant.

"We had opportunities to stop the suffering," Scolari said as reflected ruefully on the failure to despatch the Dutch well before the final whistle. "But with me it has been always like that. We are in pain right until the end."

Scolari studies his opponents diligently, but refuses to burden his players with all that knowledge, secreting Plan B, and maybe C as well, within that extraordinary mind, while working on all the options in training. He describes himself as "a good organiser, not too scientific - I try to keep it simple. I don't expect my players to think about this as a science. It's not American football. You don't have to learn 33 plays [though, intriguingly, during one break in play against Holland, he produced a large green clipboard, containing a diagram of the field of play, summoned Figo, and engaged in an earnest discussion with him]. But most of all I'm a friend to my players."

His body language confirms that, although in reality he represents more of a paternal figure than a genuine pal. There are some abiding images which reveal much about his relationships with his men. A high-five with Rivaldo at the end of the 2002 World Cup final in Yokohama, for instance. And on Wednesday, it was significant that Maniche, following the second Portugal goal, dashed not towards his fellow players but into the arms of Scolari, like a child seeking approval from his father.

Scolari's eyes gleam mischievously when confronted with any cross-examination of his tactics and personnel. At the beginning of the tournament, he spoke of the limited time he had had to prepare his men. "Those days [before and during the championship] were the first time I had the chance to spend a long time with the team," he said. "It was like going out with a girlfriend for five or six years, getting married and splitting up one week later. You sleep together, wake up and then you see what she looks like first thing in the morning - really quite ugly." Hmm. Something suggests that we are unlikely to hear a similar analogy from Eriksson.

Whatever the aesthetic qualities of his team, then, they have developed an allure which has convinced the nation that Scolari is not the "team before individual" pragmatist that he had been depicted as. His methods have always been tainted by his approach during the early days in Brazil, when his strategy was founded upon strong defence and teamwork, qualities which, he claims, he admired from afar in Brian Clough's management.

Over the years, Scolari has relished confirming his detractors' prejudices with utterances such as he made during Brazil's qualification for the last World Cup: "The beautiful game is dead and buried. It is history." But probably closer to his true philosophy is another declaration: "I would never inhibit the creativity of a player. A piece of improvisation could be decisive."

Ultimately, he is aware that victory tonight will negate all critics. He enjoys relating what his son, Fabricio, once advised him: "Do you know what second place is? It's the first of the last."

Conspicuous success at both club (with Palmeiras and Gremio) and international level in Brazil, conjuring the 2002 World Cup triumph, is a rebuke to all who preach the message that it requires an international-class player to inspire others.

He stands by his men, but more crucially by his own judgement, even resisting a clamour for the return of the ageing Romario for the 2002 World Cup.

Scolari was not blessed with excessive playing talent, rather like one of his illustrious peers, Arsène Wenger, who opines: "For me, he is like a guy who has started on the wrong track, and had done everything wrong. When I arrived here [in Portugal], everybody hated him. Today he is a hero. He was a little bit the same in the World Cup. He started with the wrong team, and found the right team. Changing a team like he has done takes more than bravery. It takes intelligence, and knowledge and competence. He has achieved a miracle."

Back in Brazil, Scolari often suffered the wrath of officialdom. Well, you would when you suggest to a referee: "I'll wait for you outside" following a row over a decision. Now, in his fifties, he has mellowed. Certainly the anger and frustration remain, but he directs them more productively.

Tonight Scolari embraces a nation's faith and hope as his team strive for a long-overdue trophy. Under the Brazilian in their midst, you sense it will be rewarded.


Born: 9 November 1948

Nationality: Brazilian.

Playing career: a defender with Aymore, Caxias, Novo Hamburgo, Juventude and CSA.

Coaching career: Clubs - Gremio (Br) Jan 1987- Dec 1990. Criciuma (Br) Jan 1991-Dec 1992. Gremio (Br) Jan 1993-Dec 1996. Palmeiras (Br) Jan 1997-June 2000. Cruzeiro (Br) July 2000-June 2001.

Coaching honours: won the Copa Libertadores (Gremio 1995, Palmeiras 1999), World Cup (Brazil 2002), reached Euro 2004 final (Portugal).

Countries: Brazil (June 2001-June 2002). Portugal (2003-present).

Record with Portugal: W11 D5 L3.