James Lawton: Big Phil's big lesson - don't pander to the star system

'You might think the coach has a cube of ice in his heart... It is only afterwards you know how much he is with you'
Click to follow
The Independent Football

In the shadow of England's defeat at the Estadio da Luz Sven Goran Eriksson asked a dangerously rhetorical question. Spreading his arms slightly in a gesture which practised observers suspected was a show of emotion, he said: "What have I done wrong?" That wasn't the problem, of course. The charge against Eriksson is not that he did wrong but that he didn't do anything at all beyond picking the self-evidently best players in the land.

It is not an accusation that has ever been levelled against Luiz Felipe "Big Phil" Scolari, the man who has now coached his England rival off the park in the quarter-finals of two major football tournaments and who, despite winning the 2002 World Cup for his native Brazil, is paid less than a quarter of Eriksson's salary of £4.5m a year.

Even after Portugal's convulsive defeat of England on Thursday night, everyone here is still not totally enchanted by Big Phil, as they were not in Brazil until right up to the moment he delivered the nation a fifth World Cup win on a drizzly night in Yokohama. This, however, is maybe the inevitable consequence of an operating style that couldn't be more opposed to Eriksson's. Luis Figo, a national hero in Portugal while his coach was still working his way controversially through Brazilian club football, is the latest superstar to have been challenged - and brought to heel - by Scolari.

The decision to yank Figo off at the climactic stage of Monday's game was stunning, not least on the England bench, where the idea of doing the same to the dismal David Beckham apparently never registered. Figo scowled his disbelief but Portugal won and there are now, naturally, clear signs of a thaw in the way the country sees a man who at first was considered arrogant even by Brazilinho standards. Nuno Gomes, one of the players who has fought his way back into Scolari's somewhat erratic affections, says: "In the build-up to a game, and during it, you might think the coach has a cube of ice for his heart... it is only afterwards that he expresses himself fully, and you know how much he is with you."

If Scolari has an article of faith it is that the coach who submits to the "star system" - as many believe Eriksson has done with astonishing meekness - is inevitably doomed. "Building up to the World Cup," he recalls, "I had to have a showdown with [Brazil's] Ronaldo. I didn't want to make war, I just wanted to show him I had a job to do. During a training match I told him he had to do some work off the ball, pick up a man. He didn't like it. I saw him pulling faces. But in the end he saw that I was working for the team - and him - to win.

"You cannot have 'stars' in winning teams - only great players." That Scolari kept so cool in the frenzy of the Estadio da Luz, that he was able to irrigate the spirit of his team so brilliantly by sending on the fading maestro Rui Costa, the fine, unshowy winger Simao and, most improbably, the Tottenham reserve Helder Postiga, shouldn't have been so much of a surprise - no more perhaps, than Eriksson's wielding of Phil Neville.

Scolari did, after all, take on the entire Brazilian establishment as he marched, often precariously, to his great triumph in the World Cup. At the time, one camp insider said: "There are many people in Brazil who just do not believe Scolari is one of them. His football is from another world, hard and not at all romantic. He cut the country in half when he wouldn't have anything to do with the great favourite Romario [a star of Brazil's fourth World Cup win in 1994]. Even though he is 36 and maybe a little crazy, Romario is considered by many to be the soul of Brazilian football. But Scolari has gone his own way. It means he needs to win."

Whether or not he performs a stunning double here in the next week, Scolari has clearly retained high marketability as he negotiates with Benfica - the becalmed giant of Portuguese football. For the moment he stands clearly among the winners of Euro 2004, second only to veterans Karel "The Magician" Bruckner of the Czech Republic and the least tranquillised man in the whole tournament, the inspirational Otto Rehhagel of Greece.

The losers: Italy's Giovanni Trapattoni, who tied himself into one corner too many, the hapless, Tottenham-bound Jacques Santini, who looked more like a candidate for Madame Tussaud's than White Hart Lane as he watched his unbalanced and utterly uninspired France shuffle out of the tournament, and - though don't mention it at the Football Association - Eriksson.

That list of the losers is made to look even more shocking by the superb work of Denmark's Martin Olson and Sweden's combination of Lars Lagerback and Tommy Soderberg, who have again produced well-balanced and seriously competitive teams.

Among football's technicians, Scolari is the maverick, the iconoclast. He has worked for passion as well as discipline and commitment in the Portuguese team, saying: "When I first arrived in Portugal I saw some big differences between my new players and the Brazilians. Of course there is more tactical discipline here, but when I did my team talks I didn't see the glint in the players' eyes," Scolari reported. "Now, I understand them better and they understand me, I think we have a team."

Some Portuguese critics, while praising his touchline savvy, still find it hard to forgive Scolari the team he sent out to the first-game disaster against Greece, though perhaps that defeat can now be placed in a less damaging perspective with the subsequent performances of the passionate Rehhegel's side. However, leaving out Deco, Cristiano Ronaldo and, most egregiously, the tournament's best def-ender, Ricardo Carvalho, was a perversity that is bound to linger in some minds.

One of Scolari's innovations has been to produce a tape of Portugal's melancholy fado music livened by some of the rhythms of Brazil. He played it on the team bus, at first to glazed-eyed silence, then to gathering enthusiasm. It was, most agreed, a clever idea, blending the deep, slow-burning pride of Portugal with the zing of the new world. Portugal pay Scolari €150,000 (£100,000) a month. Again, don't mention it at the FA, but there are signs they have a bargain.