Big Daddy

Felipe “Big Phil” Scolari is a national father figure, and he’s back to squash the Curse of 1950

Felipe Scolari fills a room. Last November, the coach of the Brazilian national team strolled into the lounge of Miami’s JW Marriott Marquis Hotel, which for two days had been crammed full of journalists frantically hammering at keyboards and bellowing into phones ahead of a friendly against Honduras. Felipão entered and the volume dropped. He shook hands and embraced senior members of the press by name.

Within minutes, he was reclining on a couch and laughing, recounting one of his legendary resenhas, anecdotes from a career that has taken him all over the world and brought him league titles, a couple of Copa Libertadores, and Brazil’s fifth World Cup in 2002.

Big Phil puts you at ease but you always sense his presence. His charisma has been the key to his success. It made the difference when he returned to the Brazilian national team in June 2001, just as the team appeared to be on the verge of the unthinkable: failing to qualify for a World Cup. Emerson Leao had been fired in the departure lounge of the Tokyo airport, paving the way for Scolari to become Brazil’s fourth coach in nine months. A Copa América exit the following month at the hands of Honduras did little to quell Brazilian concerns, and before the ’02 World Cup, the Seleção were not, for a change, one of the favorites.

You know how that turned out. The victory in Japan was achieved as much off the pitch as on it. Scolari formed an unbreakable bond between the players, a unit so close the Brazilian press dubbed them the Scolari Family. Felipão had become the patriarch.

“He’s like a father to everyone,” David Luiz told me earlier this year. “He always says he wants us to work hard, to be tactically prepared and mentally ready, but that he wants everyone to be happy.” The class of 2014 are certainly that. Ask any of them about the atmosphere in the squad and every one of them will say it’s the best they’ve experienced.

Brazil - 2014 FIFA World Cup Training Camp - Day 1Since returning in November 2010, Solari has transformed Brazil from a schizophrenic side searching for an identity in the post-Dunga era into the team that roared to Confederations Cup success, hammering world champion Spain 3–0 in the final.

Scolari himself enjoyed a humble playing career. He was came from Rio Grande Do Sul, the country’s southernmost state, far from the mayhem of Rio and São Paulo, and played as a physical central defender before making his name as a coach with a dogged, organized Gremio side in the late 1980s. He returned to the club in 1994 and led it to a Copa Libertadores, then won it again with Palmeiras in 1999.

He spent four years with Portugal, finishing second at Euro 2004 and fourth at the 2006 World Cup. In 2008, Roman Abramovich hired him to coach Chelsea, but he left after only eight months amid suggestions that he was unable to motivate a diverse and multicultural dressing room.

He returned to Palmeiras in 2010, winning the Copa do Brasil but also losing a relegation battle. Scolari next returned to the Seleção, succeeding Mano Menezes in November 2012. Since then he has transformed Brazil from a schizophrenic side searching for an identity in the post-Dunga era into the team that roared to Confederations Cup success, hammering world champion Spain 3–0 in the final. Brazil has now won 13 of its last 14 matches.

Felipao is a pragmatist at heart, favouring solidity to anything resembling joga bonito. His World Cup-winning side was certainly not the most fluid Brazilian team to win a World Cup: three central defenders and two defensive midfielders left only full-backs Roberto Carlos and Cafu offering support to the attacking trio of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Ronaldo.

Scolari’s approach is now more expansive than 12 years ago. He favors an attacking and proactive 4-2-3-1 that sometimes morphs into 4-3-3. Scolari Family 2.0 are outright tournament favorites.

“I’ve only heard about 2002, as I wasn’t there, but I’m pretty sure we have the same thing going on here,” Hulk told me. “My teammates are part of my family.”

That family is now in search of the country’s sixth world title—and its first on home soil. All of Brazil is aware of the the Maracanazo of 1950, when Brazil, needing only draw to claim its first World Cup, blew a 1–0 lead and lost 2–1 to Uruguay in the final game. In recent months, Scolari has launched a one-man campaign to completely rewrite Maracanazo rhetoric.

“My vision of 1950 is entirely different to what most people think,” he said in February. “Before 1950, Brazil had never made it to the final—that team were pioneers.”

Now Big Phil must go one better. He must banish the memories of what Brazilian playwright and novelist Nelson Rodrigues has labeled “our Hiroshima.” Two-hundred million people expect nothing less. He will be awfully busy this month, but come mid-July, Scolari may just stroll into another hotel lounge somewhere and sit back to tell perhaps the greatest resenha in Brazilian soccer’s illustrious history.