Luiz Felipe Scolari: If you thought Mourinho was mad...wait till you meet Big Phil
Friday 13 June 2008
Big Phil from Brazil is heading our way. Luiz Felipe Scolari has finally been persuaded to overcome his dislike of the British media, and the inconvenience to his family, and assume the post of managing Chelsea Football Club, the west London plaything of the Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich.
His nickname "Big" is as much a tribute to Scolari's character as his physique – both of which will be useful for bossing Chelsea's extravagantly rewarded footballers – who probably thought they had seen the full repertoire of touchline tricks under their former manager "the Special One" Jose Mourinho.
Even by the game's often eccentric standards, Scolari stands out: forthright, sentimental, hot-tempered and fiercely loyal to his players (unless gay). He cuts a swearing and spitting wildman on the touchline, and has been in hot water for his admiration of Chile's murderous dictator Augusto Pinochet. Devoutly religious, he leads prayer circles, carries iconic statuettes and once required his players to place "holy pebbles" in their socks. Boring, this will not be.
It is not the first time there has been talk of Scolari moving here. Assorted Englishmen have made attempts to lure him – understandably, since he coached the sides that knocked the national team out of two World Cups: Brazil, in 2002, and Portugal four years later. Portugal also knocked England out of the 2004 European Championships.
But after much teasing and tempting the Football Association, he announced that he was turning down the opportunity to manage England, declaring that he did not need the kind of press scrutiny that Sven-Goran Eriksson endured. "Last night there were 20 reporters outside my house," he complained. "This is not part of my life and never will be. I will definitely not be a coach of England."
Manchester City sounded him out as a possible successor to Eriksson, but could not persuade him to leave the Iberian peninsula: it would be disruptive for his two sons, who are students.
It may also be that he did not fancy facing the British media. He does not much like our journalists, and no doubt will be annoyed (if unsurprised) by the coverage his impending arrival has received. Yesterday's Evening Standard set the tone by announcing that the real boss in the Scolari household is Olga, 58, his wife of 33 years, who is everything a WAG is not meant to be: a biology graduate, trained teacher and, as an accomplished painter, an esteemed member of the San Diego Museum of Arts. Rumour has it that it was she who ordered him to take the Brazilian midfielder Kaka to the 2002 World Cup.
The Scolaris were childhood sweethearts who met when he was a petrol pump attendant and she a hotel maid. When asked why he had not watched a recorded England match, he replied: "I have a tape of it but I won't be watching it when I get to my house. I want to see my wife – if you know what I mean."
Chelsea's Bentley-driving players will be excited by the arrival of a big name, following the comparatively anonymous Avram Grant. The new gaffer is unlikely to smile at any camp high jinks: he reportedly declared – jokingly? – in 2002 that: "If I found out that one of my players was gay I would throw him off the team." Condemned by Brazilian gay groups, Phil insisted he was not homophobic: "My friends include people whose sexual preference is different from my own." A simple misunderstanding then.
Which is more than can be said for his fist fight with a Serbian player last September. If you type the words "Scolari" and "punch" into YouTube's search engine you can relive the moment he landed a jab square on the head of Ivica Dragutinovic.
Scolari's surprised Serbian target was well able to dodge any further flying ham and but for the restraining hold of other players would have pursued the older coach and lamped him back.
Instead, he contented himself by mouthing the words Hijo de Puta – Spanish questioning of Scolari's maternal parentage. Scolari's native language is Portuguese, but he understood perfectly. Scolari had been pacing like a caged animal on the touchline, jeered by some of his own supporters. He stormed on to the field to contest a late goal. According to Scolari, he did not start the fight; nor did he actually hit Dragutinovic, and the whole incident was the referee's fault for allowing that goal. Hmmm. "He was going to hit Quaresma and I defended him," he said on Portuguese television. "Ask him if I touched one little hair on his head. Who was to blame out there was the referee. Two metres offside!"
A Uefa inquiry reached a different conclusion. Scolari was fined £8,000 and banned for four games. He apologised but said his actions were in the best interest of his players. "It wasn't my greatest moment, but I won't let anything happen to my players." Similarly, when his Portugal captain Luis Figo headbutted Holland's Mark van Bommel during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, the Brazilian boss leapt to the defence of his skipper: "Jesus said we should turn the other cheek. Unfortunately, Figo is not Jesus Christ."
Such emotion breeds devotion. His Portugal team hailed him thus: "Luiz is and will always be for us a shining example of leadership, respect and humanism, and will always have our support, especially in this difficult moment. The players of the Portuguese national team are proud to represent the country under the guidance of Luiz Felipe Scolari. We will all fight together for our common objective."
Born in Passo Fundom, Brazil, in 1948, Scolari played as a defender for a succession of Brazilian football clubs before becoming a team manager in 1982. He became the Brazilian national coach in 2001. He looks – and acts – much like Gene Hackman, the Hollywood star whose grizzled face has enlivened classic films such as Bonnie and Clyde, The French Connection, and the western Unforgiven.
For the time being, however, all will remain quiet, because Scolari has his hands full guiding the Portugal team through Euro 2008. Chelsea said there would be no further announcement until he takes up his post on 1 July.
The Chelsea berth is problematic, to say the least. Under the eye of Abramovich, Scolari's Israeli predecessor, Avram Grant, lasted just eight months. His managerial coffin was nailed shut in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, when John Terry missed a penalty and gave the Champions League title to Manchester United. That he failed to bring home a trophy was not the only crime laid at Grant's door. An exasperated press corps complained that he was irredeemably boring.
That is something they will never say about Big Phil Scolari. The reaction here is not difficult to predict once Scolari lets loose in English about whatever sets his temper alight. He is destined to be a star, for whom 20 journalists outside this front door will be a regular occurrence. So, given how he claims to hate that sort of attention, and the language and cultural barriers he will have to cross, what lured Scolari away from Portugal?
The answer is simple: money. When his four-year contract with Chelsea is up, he will be a very rich man indeed. His current salary is estimated to be £2.7m a year, of which £1.5m is paid by the Portuguese Football Federation, with the rest coming from corporate sponsorships. Manchester City was prepared to improve on that, but not substantially. Chelsea, however, is the plaything one of the richest men in the world, the Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich. The early reports that Big Phil is to be paid £27m over four years appear to have been slightly exaggerated: the true figure, though, is round about £21m – about double what he is getting in Portugal. If he can make a few more neutral supporters love, rather than detest, Chelsea, his paymaster will consider him worth every penny.
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