James Lawton: Scolari: magician with a plucky streak

Portugal's training camp is a traffic-strewn drive along the Tagus riverfront and then a swing south on to the Vasco da Gama bridge. The great bridge stretches 13km. However, a favourite theory here now is that Luiz Felipe Scolari can simply pull off his shoes and take the short-cut.

Having guided Portugal to the nation's first appearance in the final of a major tournament, the Brazilian World Cup-winner is feted wherever he goes. Yesterday, when he was mobbed by admirers, he said, "Thank you all, you are helping me achieve unbelievable things." He is being pressed to sign up for a World Cup campaign. Scolari says that he has been offered marriage by Portugal and coyly shows his wedding-ring finger.

Even Luis Figo, who was so shockingly yanked out of the quarter-final with England last week, was seen to smile in the coach's presence after Wednesday's semi-final win over the Netherlands. But then Figo had just been handed the hugely vindicating man-of-the-match award and it was clear that not even the quirky Brazilian could threaten his chances of a spectacular farewell in Sunday's final at the Estadio da Luz.

But then, again, with Scolari you never quite know. He hates the star system. He had Brazil's Ronaldo marking back in training for the first time in his life. He condemned the veteran Romario, national hero, and another World Cup winner, to the shadows - much to the rage of the Brazilian public, and then he revelled in the pressure these decisions brought on his head, the head that so remarkably resembles that of the film actor Gene Hackman.

Scolari's is an approach that has brought some astonishing results, but even in the huge celebration that has enveloped this city - and nation - some Portuguese are asking, mostly in whispers it is true, an intriguing question. Is Scolari, the redeemer of Portugal's football, a genius - or is he a clown? Does he ride his luck more spectacularly than any coach working today? It is outlandish only if you haven't traced the course of a 2-1 Portuguese victory which, after touching the imperious, descended into a panicky scramble for survival.

It is also a question which has occurred to anyone who has studied the full sweep of Scolari's campaign. Let's start at the beginning, the gut-wrenching defeat by unfancied Greece. Scolari went into that game without three of his key players: Deco, the playmaker, Cristiano Ronaldo, a dramatic, and effective, presence since he was called in for the second half of that first game, and arguably the tournament's best defender, Ricardo Carvalho. This was a bizarre selection by any standards, and only when it was rectified did Portugal begin to build momentum with victories over Russia and, decisively, the bitter enemy Spain.

Most everyone agrees that Scolari was flawless against England. His team played much the better football, but when it seemed that victory would elude them, the coach made telling substitutions with Helder Postiga, the Spurs reserve, and Rui Costa, almost everyone's idea of a yesterday man, scoring brilliant goals. Scolari and the team were redeemed.

For nearly an hour on Wednesday night that sense of a team moving on to a new level was superbly expanded. Figo had ransacked his past and come up with some of his most brilliant work. Maniche, scorer of a stupendous goal, gave a classic display of midfield craftsmanship. Deco was hitting some of his best form. Ronaldo was full of life and aggression, and he scored from a corner which he had forced while driving the experienced Michael Reiziger to near witlessness.

The Dutch were exposed as a sad, broken, old team. So what could possibly change that? A freak own goal conceded by Jorge Andrade? Surely not. Well, what then? Could it have been the potentially disastrous tinkering of Scolari? The kindest interpretation of what happened is that Scolari, the football original, caught a bad case of the virus that these days seems to strike, at some critical time or another, almost every coach.

Give them a lead, and a performance good enough to create that edge, and what do they do? Do they drive on and develop their advantage. No, they take off some of the men most responsible, and wheel out defenders. Wednesday's beaten coach Dick Advocaat did it most abjectly when, enjoying a lead over the impressive Czech Republic in a group game, he withdrew the winger Arjen Robben in favour of a defensive midfielder. The Czechs won. Sven Goran Eriksson produced Phil Neville in a similar situation against the Portuguese.Advocaat replaced his most dangerous forward, Marc Overmars, at half-time in the semi-final.

Scolari didn't lose to the Dutch but he managed to create nearly half an hour of pure panic, where before there had been a growing confidence. He brought off Ronaldo, still full of running and providing, with Figo, tremendous width and flair, only to bring on Petit, known as the "Pit Bull" and a defensive midfielder for Benfica. Result: an instant loss of momentum.

Portugal no longer dictated the game. A shambolic Netherlands team had suddenly been invited to believe they were Portugal's equals. The Dutch response, admittedly, was pitiful, a series of long balls aimed at creating half a chance for Ruud van Nistelrooy and his partner, substitute Pierre van Hooijdonk, who, with another substitute, Roy Makaay, brought the Dutch striking complement to three.

And what were the Portuguese, the authors of some increasingly beautiful football in the first half. doing at the time? Clearing their lines as Wimbledon or Watford might have done back in the stone-age of English football.

In the very depth of this process, with goalkeeper Ricardo faking injury - and with three minutes left on the clock, plus nearly four minutes of added time - Scolari produced his most mystifying stroke. He brought on the central defender Fernando Couto for Maniche, who would have been utterly vital in extra time had the Dutch scored a goal in the lottery to which the game had descended.

There was a time when Couto was one of the most ferocious prospects in big-time football, but he is pushing 35 now and about as mobile as a donkey engine. He promptly gave up a critically placed free-kick.

Nuno Gomes, who gave life to Portugal's crusade when he scored superbly against Spain, was yesterday asked about the special style of Scolari. There was a little mischief in the question, in that Gomes had watched his rival Pauleta miss a stream of chances before replacing him in the 75th minute. But he played it straight back. "Mr Scolari," Nuno Gomes said, "is a very experienced coach and is very valuable in big matches. He has won a World Cup and he is very good at dealing with players in the pressure of big matches."

His record permits little argument. Scolari was the scourge of rivals in Brazilian club football, he beat back the rage of the public and steered the national team to recovery after the shock of defeat in the 1998 World Cup final in Paris. Here in Portugal he has again battled waves of criticism. He has been savaged and now he is being courted. Plainly, he is a big football man. But before he walks on the Tagus, maybe he should explain how it was on Wednesday night that Portugal, a lovely team, suddenly turned into a rabble.

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