Luiz Felipe Scolari: Don't call me 'Big Phil'
Chelsea's new manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, is ready to give his all to the club and his players as long as they put in the hard graft. Jason Burt says the ultimate football chameleon has got what it takes
Saturday 16 August 2008
It's a curiosity of football that managers are presented with a shirt bearing their name on its back when they are "unveiled" to the media on their first day in charge. After all they do not wear the team kit or have a squad number. But in the case of Luiz Felipe Scolari there was a significance which may say much about him and how he is going about his job as manager of the world's most intriguing club: Chelsea FC.
Not unreasonably club officials asked Scolari what he wanted on the blue home shirt he was to be photographed holding. Would he prefer "Big Phil", "Felipao" (Big Phil in Portuguese), "Felipe" or "Scolari"? The new man chose the latter, even though he has always been referred to by his more familiar names. He even went further, asking the club not to call him "Big Phil" or use the name at all.
Not that Scolari is po-faced. The 59-year-old is just the ultimate chameleon football manager. A survivor. An adaptor. A politician. A man who has thrived and, at times, simply done well to last in environments as diverse as his native Brazil, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Japan – to a lesser extent – and Portugal and, hopefully, west London. He has also built an image as a tough-guy gaucho from southern Brazil, capable of throwing punches and insults, although he has cleverly finessed that knowing that it would not wash with Roman Abramovich. Discipline, yes, but not dissent or wilfulness. The Chelsea owner had had a bellyful of that with Jose Mourinho and, contrary to his image, Scolari is nothing if not a schmoozer, who knows how to handle the rich-men and power-brokers.
At Chelsea he has traded, rightly, on his reputation of success. There are not many World Cup winners and the egos and reputations that exist in the Chelsea dressing room have to defer to that. But there is also charisma and humour which has struck the right chord after the morose paranoia of Avram Grant's chaotic regime. As noteworthy as Scolari's impressive command of English on that first day has been his warmth and self-deprecation – and penchant for jokes. Indeed one of those closest to him said that his only frustration at Chelsea has been his inability to tell his stock, cheesy mother-in-law type jokes well enough. When he was asked at the club if he was aware how people thought he looked like the actor Gene Hackman, he replied that he was and, actually, he liked to watch his films.
Scolari has also embraced some of the customs at Chelsea such as new recruits having to stand on a chair and sing a song to the first-team squad. His assistants Darlan Schneider (who is also his nephew) and Flavio Teixeira have already done so with the latter accompanying the former on guitar. Music and humour has played a big part in the Scolari regime with club insiders claiming this has been the most relaxed pre-season since Abramovich took over.
The players can testify to the same. Frank Lampard , Didier Drogba, Florent Malouda and Shaun Wright-Phillips have all felt the hand of Scolari on their shoulder. John Terry's first encounter with the Brazilian - when he knocked on his door to politely introduce himself – was quickly followed by a bear hug from the big man. Yesterday, as he talked ahead of tomorrow's opening Premier League meeting, against Portsmouth, Scolari revealed part of his own methodology when discussing Nicolas Anelka. "Sometimes he's quiet," he said. "You can say 'good morning' and he replies but if you don't speak to him he does speak to you. We need to put fire in Anelka. I need to work in his head."
"Putting fire" in the bellies of his players is something Scolari has always done. With Brazil and Portugal he fostered the "Familia Scolari" approach, becoming the patrician and, with his homeland in particular, investing much in his – and his players – deep religious faith. At Chelsea, with a variety of nationalities, it will be more about being their friend and confessor but also showing a ruthless streak which he has done in trimming the squad – and leaving others, such as Joe Cole, unsure.
When asked about Lampard's new five-year contract, Scolari offered another insight. "He [Lampard] said to me 'Mister I have signed for five years' and I said 'Great because I am here for two and maybe more'. And maybe we talked about how he could be my assistant after that," Scolari said. "He's a great player for Chelsea and a symbol of the club. He doesn't need to say anything about me. He only needs to help me in the field." It was a compliment that also put Lampard in his place. The best he could hope for is to be Scolari's assistant. Not his successor. And he had better still perform.
It is a honeymoon period and everyone has shelved their reservations about Scolari's serious tactical limitations and the fact that he took the most talented squad in the competition to the European Championships only to fail miserably. There were also the allegations that he had grown lazy and uninterested and only took the job for one big, last pay-day. In England, the test is just starting for a man who has not coached in club football for seven years and never faced the relentless, intensity of a Premier League season.
In his first meeting with Abramovich, the opening question Scolari was asked was what type of football he would have the team play. He returned to the theme yesterday and, in a claim that he may come to regret, said he wanted Chelsea to be a kind of "Blue Brazil" (with apologies to Cowdenbeath). "The idea is to put on the field, to play our game, as similar as Brazilian football as we can," he said. "But I have players who are made for English football. The characteristics are different. We try to learn things about dribbling, control the ball, pass the ball, touch the ball, one-twos. We try. We have some players who play similar to those in Brazil. But others not."
Scolari also qualified his statement. "If you don't win, people forget that you played very well. People kill you. I know this. You can play very well for one or two months, then you don't win, then it's over." And with that he drew his finger across his throat, as if to slash it. Scolari knew he had to adapt to survive and it's the best reason to believe he can.
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