Luiz Felipe Scolari: One-on-One

It may be Carnival Monday in Brazil, but for Luiz Felipe Scolari it’s just another working day. The World Cup-winning coach, now back in his homeland with Palmeiras, is en route to meet FFT direct from a training session – and we’ve been briefed that he might not be in the best of moods. With most of his squad still suffering from the weekend celebrations, Big Phil called an early halt to training, warning his charges to return tomorrow fully rested. Thanks for getting him in the mood, guys.

It’s not long before Scolari enters the room, when it’s our turn to get a scolding. After all, isn’t that what Scolari’s all about? Er, not really, as we discover with relief. It’s rare that we interview someone so willing to talk about everything, without even attempting to dodge a single bullet. The former Chelsea manager even throws in some unexpected revelations, from late-night golf on the eve of the World Cup final to his Oscar-winning turn of impersonating Gene Hackman. And then there’s the story of how England could have beaten Brazil in 2002 – if only Sven had read just one book. Over to you...

You followed your father Benjamin into pro football. What influence did he have on you?
Rachel Barker, London
Not much, actually. Despite being a good player  he never encouraged me to follow him. What he wanted me to do was study and get a proper job. At that time, 40 years ago, football players didn’t have anything like the status they have now.

Where did the ‘Big Phil’ moniker come from?
George Lane, via Facebook
It came from my playing days. I was a strong defender, and Ruy Carlos Ostermann, a great journalist, started calling me Felipao [Big Phil] due to my power. Only later, people in England started calling me ‘Big Phil’, and I don’t have a problem with that. But for Brazilians I’m Felipao. Once, in Portugal, a guy asked for an autograph, so I signed it ‘Scolari’. He returned it, saying: “Sign Felipao!” Turns out he was Brazilian.

You were known as ‘Wooden Leg’ as a player. Were you really that bad?! And how would you cope with the modern game?
Tyler Charlton, Flint
No, no! OK, I wasn’t a classy, skilled player, but I was good, and I used my physical strength to help my team. I had good sense of positioning and I was a leader. I was made team captain at 20, and I carried the armband for every team I played for. With my qualities and based on what I see today, I could be playing for a good team in the Brazilian league, that’s for sure!

Lots of great managers such as yourself were average players. Why do you think this is?
Zara Thorpe, via Twitter
What I do think is that most good coaches who played professional football were defenders or midfielders, meaning they had a full view of the game. Playing at the back, it’s easier to analyse  tactics – which helps when you want to become a coach. Coaching was always in my plans. When I was still playing, I majored in physical education and spent a year specialising in football and volleyball coaching. Yes, I could have been a volleyball teacher! I chose football.

You managed in the Middle East, including a spell as manager of Kuwait. What was that like? Were you given any lavish gifts?
Sophie Lowe, Reading
I spent three years coaching in Saudi Arabia and three years in Kuwait, and it was great. It’s ?a different world culturally, but when you have your family alongside you, it’s easier to adapt. The biggest gift I was given was a watch, although I did get some rugs and silk fabrics. That’s their way of showing appreciation.

In the wake of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 you were forced to depart after winning the Gulf Cup with the Kuwaiti national team. Were you ever in danger?
Tilly Scott, Sandbach
No, we were never in danger, because when the invasion happened, the Kuwait squad was doing pre-season in France, while my family was on vacation in Brazil. When the news broke, it was hell for the players. They had to enter Kuwait by land so they could protect their families, but I went to Brazil, since there was nothing for me to do in Kuwait. Back home, I became Criciuma coach and we won the Copa do Brasil, my first big title in Brazil. I returned later to coach in Kuwait.

You won two Copa Libertadores yet some accused you of playing ‘un-Brazilian football’. How did you feel about such criticism? Is Brazil is too obsessed with stylish football?
Musheera Ayat Bahar, Sydney
In Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro, people are used to technical, skilled football, but in Rio Grande do Sul, where I am from, the emphasis is on physical play. Because of that, my teams may not play beautifully, which initially drew some criticism. But we were organised and productive, and with time people started to see that such a style pays off. When I took over the national team, I was criticised for playing with three at the back. Only one coach had used this tactic in Selecao history, Sebastiao Lazaroni in 1990, and the results were not so good. But I knew I had players with great technique who could perform this function accordingly.

When you took over as Brazil coach in 2001, you lost in the Copa America to Honduras as well as your first World Cup qualifier to Uruguay. Did you wonder what you’d let yourself in for?
Lara Walters, Ipswich
No, not at all. When I took over, we had a detailed blueprint in which we studied all the remaining opponents and predicted where we would get the points to get us to the World Cup. We never lost track of that. As for the Copa America, it was just an experiment. No one wanted to lose like that, but it was there that I built my foundations, clearing the doubts I had about players – who I could trust and who I couldn’t. The Scolari family was formed there.

There was huge support for Romario to be included in your 2002 World Cup squad but you left him out. Why? Did you not get on?
Charlie Collier, via email
Nothing happened. We lost my first game, then we had the Copa America and he didn’t want to go. Then we had a friendly and he was recovering from an eye problem. I thought it was important he came with us anyway, but he said he couldn’t. But then he went and played some friendlies for Vasco da Gama. So I decided to build a team around those I could count on. They gave me the return I wanted.

You took over Brazil in crisis and turned them into World Cup winners. How?
Ryan Hudson, Liverpool
Well, step by step. First we qualified for the World Cup. Then from horrible we became just bad. We played some friendlies, started to get stronger, and from bad we became average – but not enough to go all the way, they said. I knew I had a great roster, with players who weren’t afraid to work and who wanted to prove themselves. I had players returning from injuries, like Ronaldo, who were aware that the World Cup was their golden chance. I had young players, like Ronaldinho, who wanted to prove themselves. I also had experience, with Cafu, Roberto Carlos… I worked the pieces together and built a good off-pitch relationship. All I had to do was command the preparation.

Is it true you gave each of your Brazil players a copy of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War in 2002? Why? Do you think this ancient Chinese text helped you win the World Cup?
Dom Taylor, Rustington
I didn’t give them a copy, but I used the book’s lessons in my preparation. And sometimes I asked staff to slip copies of some chapters under the players’ doors in their rooms. Sometimes a different approach like this can help. For example, on the eve of the World Cup final, my players were anxious and having trouble sleeping. I found them playing mini-golf in the hotel corridor. Instead of sending everyone to bed, lecturing them on how important tomorrow’s game was, I stayed there watching, talking with them, making fun of their lame golf. Then at 2am they were more relaxed, and went to bed. Next day, they were ready and played a nice match against Germany.

You controversially left Vitor Baia out of Portugal’s Euro 2004 squad, even though he had just won the Champions League with Porto and was named Europe’s top keeper. What was the reason for this?
Simssy, via Twitter
When I was named Portugal manager, immediately I opened talks with coaches and experts to get a view of the country’s football from the inside. They gave me information on several players, and the general opinion was that I should start a process from scratch, creating a new leadership in the dressing room, which I decided to do. The odd thing was, after I made my decisions, some of those who provided me this information changed their mind and went public, asking me to do things differently. But I wouldn’t back off, even with the criticism, because I was confident that it was the right thing to do. That’s the key.

You had great confidence in Cristiano Ronaldo at Euro 2004, when he wasn’t yet a regular at Man United. You then made him Portugal captain – a controversial decision. What qualities, other than his ability, did you see in him? Do you take some credit for making him the great player he’s become?
Steve Knight, via email
Yes, a lot of people questioned this call, and some coaches still question it when Portugal lose – but when they win, no one opens their mouth. I saw him as a strong, talented boy who could develop the captaincy. Luis Figo adopted Cristiano from the moment he arrived, giving tips and advice, which really helped. I can’t say Cristiano and I have a father-son relationship, but I’d say… it’s almost a father-son relationship! Of course he doesn’t like me as he likes his father, but we have a true friendship. My sons are 27 and 20, and Cristiano is 26… so sometimes I treat him like another son, when he needs help.

Having beaten England as a coach three times at big tournaments, is there something specifically wrong with the English approach and mentality that stops us from getting further? Or are we just rubbish at penalties?
Trevor Barton, Gateshead
In the 2002 World Cup against Brazil, England were beaten because they made the mistake – as The Art of War book says – of mass attacking. They were one man up [after Ronaldinho was sent off] at the beginning of the second half but they played with four forwards! This was wrong. The ball never went upfield for them, unless it was cleared, and since we had Marcos, a 1.93m keeper, and Lucio, Roque Junior and Edmilson, a 1.90m back trio, we easily neutralised this. We were hardly ever at risk when the game was 11 vs 10. As for Portugal, there’s not much to say other than Portugal were better at penalties!

How does losing the Euro 2004 final to Greece rank among your biggest disappointments?
Stefan Marsden, Stockholm
It’s my career’s greatest frustration. I lost a Libertadores on penalties with Palmeiras, and that was bad. But to lose the Euro final at home, with a country that had never reached the tournament final... that hurt a lot. Plus I lost the chance to become the first coach to win a World Cup and European Championship back-to-back.

Why did you turn down the England manager’s job in 2006?
Ewan Jones, via email
I didn’t. I said I’d speak with England only after the World Cup, because there was a possibility that Portugal would face England in the [qualification] play-offs. But it seems the FA was pressured to choose a name, which was a shame, because I would have really liked to have taken the job. I told them that the day the World Cup ended, my contract with Portugal ended too – then we could sit and come to terms. Simple. But somehow the FA announced I had already accepted, so I said, “No, that is not correct.” If it was me England really wanted they could have waited, but they didn’t. So after Portugal knocked England out of the World Cup, I passed the England directors, looked at them and raised my hand to them, as if to say “I told you so...”

You seem very passionate on the touchline. What are you like away from football?
Zak Rob, via Twitter
People can’t imagine it, but I’m as easy-going as can be. I love a practical joke and I’m usually the one who leads the pranks. But when it’s practice time or match time, I change. After all, things have to get serious.

What happened in that Portugal vs Holland match in the 2006 World Cup Last 16? You almost hit Marco van Basten!
M Allen, Aberdeen
Oh, that’s the match I’ll remember the most in my whole life – even more than winning the World Cup! Before the match, we saw the whole Holland delegation chatting with the referee in his locker  room – a friendship that can’t exist in football. We sensed something could happen so me and Carlos Godinho [Portugal’s technical director] went to the referee to protest. Then right at the start of the match, [Khalid] Boulahrouz whacks Ronaldo and is not sent off! And as a result Ronaldo has to leave the pitch [injured]. Then it all started, with cards all over the place. I went crazy after the game was stopped, and Van Basten instructed his player not to give back a ball that was ours – what kind of fair play was that? And the game ended like that, with 16 yellows and four reds! ‘The Battle of Nuremberg’, as it’s called in Portugal, marked Holland’s attitude and way of proceeding.

You took the Chelsea job after seven years in international football. How much had club football changed during that period?
John Cox, Epsom
It was different, for sure. Commercial interests now rule player signings. I had to adapt – what else could I do? Of course I was aware of this new scenario when I was a national team coach, but there are still things that scare you. For example, you can’t buy or sell a player because he has a contract with A, B or C, a kit supplier or something else. Situations like this means the planning, the project of building a squad, can go down the drain.

What went wrong at Stamford Bridge? If you had your time again, would you do anything differently?
Charlie Harper, via email
I know I was doing a good job. We had qualified for the next stage of the Champions League, in the Premier League we were third or fourth, but still fighting for the title. It was still the beginning: there was a lot to do in the project we had laid out. The plan included trying to fix things that were not right there. But I found a closed club, not ready for such changes. There was a group running things there for many years. For me to arrive alone, with only three or four people from my staff, and start to put these changes in motion… it was not easy. It was three or four of us against 30.

[FFT: What changes did you have planned?]

We agreed to use more players from the youth squads, so we could, with time, replace the older players. But I couldn’t do that, and you know why? When I arrived, they told me there was plenty of quality there. But there wasn’t. If there were talented players, where are they now? But the staff kept telling Abramovich that the Chelsea Academy was the world’s best. They signed players for absurd fees… this was deception! I was truly honest to say, “This is not good.” I’ve never been a guy to spread honey: I will always say what I think.

You apparently had a falling-out with Didier Drogba at Chelsea. Was it a personality clash or did he just not fit in with your ideas?
Joshua Davidson, Weston-super-Mare
No, it was not a clash. I simply took decisions. And a decision about Drogba’s knee put me against him. The European culture goes like this: a player says he needs to undergo surgery, the doctors perform it. But the decision that he had to recover in Cannes all summer was absurd. To me, Cannes in the summer is for parties, the beach… everything except a recovery programme. It can’t work so I didn’t allow it. Drogba had played most of the previous season with pain, with injections in the knees. They would draw blood from his knees after games. So he needed to recover properly. Perhaps in four, five years, when his knees are still working, he’ll like my decision.

Apart from the cash, why did you go to Uzbekistan? What was it like out there?
Kevin Robinson, via email
Sure, the money was even better than Chelsea. But there was also a project of developing the game in Uzbekistan, similar to what Zico did in Japan. It was a great project and it was going just fine, but some time later, my bosses, the directors of my club, had a problem with the government. So that was it, I had to leave.

You once said: “If you plan on winning a title, do the opposite to what Pele says.” That’s quite a statement about the best player ever! Do you still stand by this?
Hamish Potts, Plymouth
Well, before the 2002 World Cup he said Brazil shouldn’t have to play with three backs, that we should do this and that… and everything we did was the opposite. That’s why I said it.

What do you make of the Gene Hackman comparisons? Are you a fan of his movies?
Andy Gatehouse, London
Oh, I’m a fan! Many make this comparison. Once I was at a pizza place in Italy with my family and I noticed the waiter kept staring at me. Finally he came over and said, “Tu sei Gene Hackman!” He asked for an autograph, so I signed ‘Gene Hackman’! The wife and kids were laughing their heads off, but I didn’t want to disappoint the guy!

Were you born with a moustache? Seriously, I’ve never seen you without it! And who owns the best moustache of all time?
Xavier Habart, Lille
That’s an easy one: Murtosa! [his longtime assistant coach]. It even hides his mouth! Mine, I first grew it in my twenties, which was when I met my wife. She said I looked uglier without it, so I never shaved! Actually, I did once, in Saudi Arabia… I was all alone, and said, what the heck, I’ll be alone for 60 days. But then I took a picture and sent it home, and it freaked everyone out! So I let it grow back.

Interview: Celso de Campos Jr. Portrait: Leo Feltran. From the July 2011 issue of FourFourTwo.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month* Join now for unlimited access

Enjoy your first month for just £1 / $1 / €1

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Try first month for just £1 / $1 / €1