James Lawton: Trust Scolari, the touchline commander, to mobilise luck on side of bold battalions

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The Independent Football

Whatever your hopes for England, one conviction is almost impossible to shake. It is that Luiz Felipe Scolari will once again dwarf Sven Goran Eriksson on the touchline in Gelsenkirchen. This becomes especially so if you linger a while on the background to Scolari's triumph with Brazil in the last World Cup.

Then, this week's praise from his players Deco and Nuno Gomes becomes less the dutiful mouthings of favoured soldiers and more an attempt to get to the heart and the meaning of the man who has twice thoroughly outcoached Eriksson in the quarter-finals of major tournaments.

Both Portuguese players paint the picture of a Victorian father, intense, dogmatic, but also capable of rare moments of intimacy and pure affection.

"Yes, he is like a father," says Gomes. "He is hard on you and you can't always know what his reaction is going to be, but he always makes you feel that you are a member of a family ... and that you are safe under his wing as long as you behave well."

What you don't do with Scolari is break his trust. Then you are a non-person. Anything you do on the field is made void. He will never pick you again.

It is well known that before he left Japan in triumph four years ago Scolari was a Brazilian national scapegoat waiting to happen. The bonfires had been prepared and the effigies were lined up to burn. Much of this had to do with his famous dispute with Romario, the legendary little striker who was such a vital factor in Brazil's fourth World Cup win, in America in 1994, a success which broke a barren spell stretching back 24 years to the extravagant glory of Pele's team in Mexico City.

For a while the argument seemed to be nothing more than a selection debate, albeit a huge one.

Romario, though in his mid-thirties, was in electric form in club football, scoring goals in brilliant clusters. Whenever Scolari went to a Brazilian league match the cries for Romario rang in his ears.

These were not spasmodic demonstrations of support for the hero. They were an unbroken tide of conviction that a Brazilian World Cup team without Romario would be a disaster.

Scolari, as he often does, made his own difficulties. He issued an absurd statement. He declared that Romario would not be chosen for "technical reasons". One Brazilian source who remains close to the team recalls, "No one could believe this statement of Scolari. They said, 'This man is a fool...' Whatever problems there are with Romario, they have nothing to do with technique."

In fact, Romario had broken Scolari's trust. As Scolari inherited a team struggling to qualify, he relented and played Romario against Uruguay in Montevideo. Romario played poorly and Brazil lost. A friend of Scolari reports, "Scolari wasn't so unhappy just because Romario didn't play so well. This happens.

"What offended him was that stories reached him that Romario had been diverted by a beautiful air hostess on the flight to Uruguay, and had seemed more concerned with launching an affair than his comeback in the national team." For Scolari, who had long before decided that the star was not a team player, that was the breaking of trust. He couldn't operate with someone who he believed put himself first, who had also made it clear he wasn't prepared to operate from the bench.

So Romario didn't go to Japan, and the virtually written-off Ronaldo did - and so did an obscure player called Luizao.

In Brazil critics were as stunned by Luizao's selection as the exclusion of Romario. At the time Scolari told Luizao he might be taken to Japan the player was unattached to a club. His career was drifting away, indeed he was known as the "Fat Man" - "He was fatter then than when Ronaldo arrived here a few weeks ago," recalled a Brazilian the other day. "But Scolari believed in Luizao, not so much as a player as a man. He felt he would be good for the dressing-room, he had good values, and he would help build the right atmosphere in the dressing-room."

Luizao did have one crucial contribution to make on the field. He won the late penalty which gave Brazil their opening victory against Turkey. "If that hadn't happened the pressure on Scolari would have been off the graph," it was recalled . Instead, the team began to grow in a group that was so easy there were gasps when the draw was made. Turkey proved more of a force than expected, but China and Costa Rica provided the other, token opposition. Scolari imposed his will, even demanding that Ronaldo marked back in training matches - for the first time in his career.

Scolari's nerve on the touchline is now a matter of football history. When Brazil were reduced to 10 men against England in the quarter-final in 2002 Scolari continued to set the tactical agenda, and so it was in Lisbon two years ago when he had the nerve to withdraw his hero captain Luis Figo and send on Helder Postiga, someone remembered in England as a failure at White Hart Lane. He also brought on the fading star Rui Costa, who promptly revitalised the Portuguese performance. Eriksson sent on Phil Neville.

Of course Scolari is enshrined in the Brazilian hall of heroes now, but his place was not granted without reservations in the flush of triumph in Yokohama. With both Brazil and Portugal he has made some good moves - and some bewildering ones. In the World Cup quarter-final with England, he dropped the former Middlesbrough favourite Juninho for the unspectacular Kleberson, drawing a dividend in midfield solidity, and in the European Championship not of all of his decisions were touched with genius, including the withholding of Deco at the start of the campaign and the brusque dropping of the excellent full-back Paulo Ferreira for one moment of light-headedness against Greece in the opening game.

In Brazil the verdict on Scolari - and it is certainly one that does not preclude a recall to his nation's cause the next time they believe they have reached a dead end - is that he is at his best in the extreme demands of big-time tournament play.

"Scolari is, we believe, a better coach for a month than a year," says a Brazilian insider. "Over a longer period, things can go wrong with Scolari. He is very stubborn, and sometimes he can go beyond logical arguments. But then when the big pressure is on he is at his best.

"For example, we believe that in this tournament Scolari would have had the nerve to have shaken up Ronaldinho by now. Carlos Alberto Parreira is a respected coach, inevitably after winning in 1994, but he is very cautious. He left Ronaldinho on the field in the last match against Ghana even though he was playing so badly. Scolari would have yanked him, and we would have been pretty sure that we would have seen a different player against France in the quarter-final.

"When we assess Scolari we say he is bold and he is lucky - it is a fantastic combination at this level of the game." Now his boldness and his luck could well be stretched by the absence of his suspended playmaker Deco and defensive midfielder Costinha today. But then the captain Figo believes that "the big man" will again steer his boys through.

"Scolari is a commander, he is the man who will always stand on his own feet, and the team want to play for him as well as their country." Deco agrees: "Whatever happens, you have to believe he is a friend to the players. The ambience he creates around the team is very good. He is always strong-minded, but we like him because we know that in football there are a lot of doubts and uncertainties. He makes us feel we are capable of conquering all of that."

Scolari versus Sven, yes, again it looks like a mismatch, but then anyone's reputation can be ambushed in football. Wayne Rooney could erupt. Steven Gerrard could find his range and his single-minded confidence. David Beckham could rifle in another free-kick. And what would Big Phil do then?

Maybe his greatest strength is that long ago we knew the answer to that question. He would get to his feet and he would roar against his fate. He would come ferociously alive. The chances are so would his team.