Football: Scolari applies the bruises to the beautiful game

Tim Vickery in Rio de Janeiro on the Brazilian with the European taste
Click to follow
The Independent Online
IN THE controversy generated by his autobiography, it was remarked that at least Alex Ferguson had the courage to speak his mind. The same most certainly applies to Luis Felipe Scolari, Ferguson's adversary in Tokyo on Tuesday when Manchester United take on Palmeiras of Brazil in the annual meeting between the champions of Europe and South America.

The methods of the Palmeiras coach are a slap in the face for idealists who look to Brazil as the spiritual home of the beautiful game. In typically forthright mood, he recently complained that his team were not committing enough fouls. "I think that well-played football throws up certain situations which oblige a player to foul," he says. "I'm referring to a normal foul, such as a push, shirt-pull or shoulder-barge - fouls which don't give the opponent time to organise. I'm not going to tell my players `don't do that because it's ugly'. I have to work within football. It's a dispute which both sides are trying to win; within the law, or rather, within what is allowed."

Scolari loves playing the plain-speaking rustic to the Brazilian media, who commonly refer to him as Felipao (Big Phil). But to dismiss him as a clown would be unwise. His track record reveals an astute and effective coach.

He comes from the south of Brazil, where the European influence was reflected in the style of the Gremio team which made his name. Hard-working, tight- marking and always dangerous in the air, Gremio fought their way to triumph in the Brazilian league, cup and the Copa Libertadores - South America's Champions' League. Four years ago Scolari took Gremio to Tokyo where, despite having a man sent off, they lost to Ajax only on penalties.

Scolari has worked to implant similar resilience in Palmeiras, the team of Sao Paulo's Italian community. Five days before Manchester United's epic win over Bayern, Palmeiras found themselves in similar circumstances in a Brazilian cup tie. With three minutes to go they needed two goals. They got them both from corners.

But there is more to Palmeiras than aerial bombardment and fighting spirit. Historically known as "The Academy", the present team have enough skill on the ground to be worthy of the tradition. Pioneers of South America's business model, Palmeiras in 1991 signed a co-management agreement with Parmalat, the Italian dairy giants. As a result they can afford to maintain a powerful squad, with Brazilian internationals on the bench.

The point is well illustrated at centre-back, where the first-choice duo are feeling their way back after injury lay-offs. But should the fearsome Cleber or the gifted but erratic Junior Baiano not be fit, ready to step in is Roque Junior, who made a sound debut for Brazil against Holland last month. Even so, the defence is a worry. They hope they can count on the keeper Marcos to repeat the heroics that saw him elected the outstanding player in this year's Libertadores. The full-backs have important attacking roles. Junior on the left has great speed, while either Ze Maria or the Paraguayan Arce on the right are excellent suppliers of crosses.

The midfield is anchored by Cesar Sampaio, a member of the Brazil team beaten in last year's World Cup final. Four years earlier Zinho was more successful, coming back from USA 94 with a winner's medal. Then a left winger, he now has a more central role, where his experience and fine left foot are fundamental in setting up the play.

Zinho is a key link with the attacking midfielder Alex, whose intelligent passing gives fluency to the Palmeiras attack. Up front Scolari favours a little and large duo. The quicksilver Paulo Nunes is the former, and could be partnered by the one-time Newcastle favourite Faustino Asprilla. After months of kicking his heels, the Colombian has recently come into contention, and fights for a first-team place with the wily Evair and the rumbustious Oseas.

Tuesday's match is the most important in Palmeiras history. They were happy to be eliminated from the current Brazilian Championship to concentrate on the Tokyo match. It is a fair bet that they know more about Manchester United than vice-versa. "We follow United's progress,"Alex says, "and I've seen that Beckham has spectacular ability. There are very few in the world today who strike the ball as he does." Zinho has also spotted the dangers. "Yorke and Cole have pace and ability, but we know we have to pay special attention to the flanks, where Beckham and Giggs are the supply line."

Scolari sees United as "a well- balanced team, full of physically strong players. Their tactical work is excellent; they know exactly what they are doing. The variations are also defined; when they make substitutions the new players introduce completely different characteristics and change the perspective of the game. Ferguson's command is spectacular, and United have a collective participation that I'm always looking for in my teams."

Mark Bosnich recently had a sneak preview of Alex while playing for Australia against Brazil's Under-23s. On that occasion, the keeper was out-smarted by one of Alex's well-timed runs in to the box. Don't rule out a repeat.

Comments