James Lawton: Scolari needs to lift Portugal above the Rooney hype
Thursday 24 June 2004
Down through the olive trees surrounding his Portuguese command post, Big Phil Scolari took his regular morning run in pursuit of tactical clarity and, perhaps as never before, a certain perspective.
Down through the olive trees surrounding his Portuguese command post, Big Phil Scolari took his regular morning run in pursuit of tactical clarity and, perhaps as never before, a certain perspective. Being Brazilian, and a World-Cup winning coach, he had been given quite a lot to work on by the declaration from the England coach Sven Goran Eriksson that Wayne Rooney had run into the terrain of Pele when he destroyed Croatia on Monday night.
So when the question came, Scolari might have been Clint Eastwood waiting for someone to make his day. His eyes narrowed slightly as the names Rooney and Pele were inevitably linked, then he declared: "One is white, the other is black. I think Rooney is a good player but Pele... there is only one in the world and not in a thousand years will we see another one not if you tried to create him by computer. There is only one." As put-downs go, this was one to rank among the best of the big man who inflamed most of Brazil with his savage dismissal of an ageing national hero, Romario, in the build up to World Cup 2002.
Romario, said Scolari, was a relic who could never be part of his plans. He was also in withering form after Portugal's half-cocked start to this tournament. "Sometimes when you are coach of a team you imagine you are going out with a beautiful girl," he said. "Then one morning you wake up and find she is ugly." Another day, and a win, and of course she is gorgeous again.
In Scolari's case it certainly seems that beauty is not so much in the eye of the beholder but the shifting circumstances of his own situation. Now he talks of the players he trusts to, among other things, counter the threat of a kid from Merseyside who may be still, and perhaps for ever, in the foothills of Pele, but who has unquestionably ripped apart many of the old certainties of the European football élite.
What, for example, would Italy, travelling home yesterday to a welcome of scorn that some feared could reach the level of 1966, when the team beaten by North Korea was pelted with bad eggs at Rome airport, have given for a player of such verve and stunning accomplishment. They had to try, unavailingly, to get by with the leaden veterans Alessandro del Piero and Christian Vieri.
How much indeed, would Scolari himself relish a striker of Rooney's soaring confidence and killer touch going into tonight's quarter-final with England at Estadio da Luz. The decisive strike of Nuno Gomes against Spain in the "kill, kill" Scolari's phrase, of course final group game triggered a geyser of national relief after so many hapless attempts by the Portuguese to produce any genuine menace in front of goal.
Scolari is plainly concerned that the rocketing profile of Rooney, whose four tournament goals and vibrant performance have plastered his image across the pages of the Lisbon newspapers, is already in the process of undermining the confidence of a team which was supposedly reborn after the tense victory over Spain. Yesterday he was asked if he agreed with the headline in one newspaper splash picturing Rooney: "Does Rooney eat too many hamburgers?" Further, did he believe that all of Portugal was scared of The Kid? Said Scolari, rather glumly, "I don't know. I don't eat hamburgers myself and I didn't see the newspaper you are referring to. I do know my players have a profound admiration for the quality of Rooney. I respect him a lot, and I know that two or three chances given to him could be fatal, but you know he doesn't win games alone, he makes part of a team.
"I look at the situation in the England team from a different angle. I don't see [Michael] Owen and [David] Beckham so much struggling as working for the team. They are not worried about scoring goals for themselves but working for the team." If it seems like a somewhat romantic view of certain hard realities, it is also true there have been times these last two weeks when Scolari appears to have been leading his adopted football country while wearing a blindfold. Three of his best players, central defender Ricardo Carvalho, already a rival for Rooney as man of the tournament after his epic performance against Spain in the game that rescued the broken heart of his nation, playmaker Deco and Manchester United's exuberant Cristiano Ronaldo, were all on the bench when Portugal headed into the opening day disaster against Greece.
Some say Scolari deserves praise for changing the team in mid-stream. Others wonder what he was doing in the first place. Now he allows that he may make one more change going in against England a team whom he believes have got a lot better at playing football "nearer the grass" under Eriksson. One theory is that Ronaldo, brilliant but also wasteful, may give way again to the less spectacular but more experienced and, perhaps, tenacious Simão Sabroso of Benfica. The other possibility, one favoured by some insiders, is that Armando Petit, the Benfica midfielder who is known as the Portuguese Pit Bull, will take over from the less belligerent but more skilful Maniche Ribeiro.
Scolari swears that he will play his own high-tempo game, hoping to wear out an England which showed troubling signs of second-half weariness in the Group games, and that he has no intention of making special plans for Rooney. Petit's appearance would almost certainly see a Pinnochio-scale increase in the size of Scolari's nose.
He says, "Rooney will be seen as just part of a very good team. I also respect Paul Scholes a lot. I've told my players that they can't allow him to get free in our area, he has a great talent for that. I've also told them this England team are a lot better than the one I faced with Brazil in the World Cup two years ago. If I want to win tomorrow I know we will have to play very well. If we just play well, we will lose.
"Now I have to make a very tough decision about a change of tactics and the possible replacement of one player. We still have to study the English team very well before I can make a verdict. If we lose, I'll strangle myself and then wonder what I should have done." That was a typical Scolari flourish. He is a big, passionate man but the process of rational thought can sometimes be a little elusive. However, you don't win a World Cup by getting everything wrong and certainly no one could question his eloquence on the matter of his greatest football compatriot, Pele, and the latest claimant to his throne. Whatever Rooney achieves, he is, we ought to accept now, unlikely to disturb the unique standing of the greatest footballer who ever lived. With, for at least once, impeccable logic Scolari declared that you just couldn't make another Pele.
What you can do, though, is produce a glorious young footballer of the hour. That England may flourish one again at Estadio da Luz has plainly not escaped the big man. Yes, Pele is for the ages. Scolari's problem is that Rooney is for the here and now. It is the one serious threat to the restored beauty of his team.
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