It still feels as though it was only yesterday – Luiz Felipe Scolari wandering hollow-eyed across the pitch after the final whistle, the Mineirão transformed into his own private Agincourt. Around him David Luiz, Julio Cesar and the rest his fallen troops lay prone, or sat broken on the turf. Others simply stood and stared into space. The chutzpah of a couple of hours before had been cruelly exposed by a lethal Germany. In the stands, the Brazilian fans that had not already left gazed through tears at the wreckage of their dreams or poured opprobrium down on their hapless manager.
“You can go to hell, Felipão!” blared the cover of Rio de Janeiro’s O Dia newspaper the next day, echoing the previously bullish coach’s statement that anyone who didn’t like his methods could do the same. “He is responsible for the biggest humiliation in the history of the Brazilian national team.”
It is not known whether Scolari read many newspapers in the weeks that followed. Hopefully he didn’t. While most commentators agreed Brazil’s problems were not all the coach’s fault, he was his nation’s Edward Smith, staring out into the darkness, oblivious to the German iceberg heading his way.
For many, the smugness that had pervaded the team after the 2013 Confederations Cup win reflected the complacency that had played such a large role in the decay of the Brazilian game. Scolari may not have been Brazil’s public enemy number one in July, but he would certainly have made the Top 10.
Where next, then, for a manager who, aside from a Copa do Brasil triumph in 2012 with Palmeiras (who he managed to relegate to Serie B that same year), had not won a major trophy since World Cup glory in 2002? The answer was obvious. It was time for Scolari to go home.
Felipão last venture into the spotlight ended on the wrong end of a six-goal drubbing by Germany. At Gremio, the former World Cup winner seems intent on never allowing a goal again. (Photo: Buda Mendes/Getty Images)
“I need a hug and some affection, and I know that Grêmio, this team, and these players, can give it to me,” he said at his inaugural press conference, 22 days after the Meltdown at the Mineirão, and 18 years after he left the club where he won the 1995 Copa Libertadores and the 1996 Brazilian league.
The move also meant a return to his Gaúcho roots. Scolari was born in Rio Grande do Sul, the fiercely independent southern tip of Brazil that’s dominated by the two big sides from Porto Alegre: Grêmio and Internacional. “Everybody knows I’m a Grêmio fan,” he said after taking the job.
On the pitch at least, Felipão’s return has gone better than might have been expected. After 12 league games, he has lifted Grêmio from 11th to fifth. Perhaps ironically, Grêmio’s strength has been its defense. The team has not conceded a goal in its last eight league games.
“I know I lost a World Cup … but I’ll keep doing the same work that I’ve done for the last 32 years. I still get excited by it. I’m doing what I enjoy,” Scolari said this week.
Scolari’s not the only big name who has sought the soothing balm of home. Then just 20, Kaká played 25 minutes under Scolari when Brazil lifted the Mundial in 2002 before enjoying a stellar career with Milan. Stripped of the thrilling leg and lung power of his younger days, it was time for Kaká to move on to gentler surroundings.
His destination? Brazil, via Major League Soccer. Having become the “Brazilian Beckham” for Flávio Augusto da Silva’s samba revolution in Orlando City, the midfielder has moved on loan to São Paulo, the club where he first came to prominence over a decade ago.
The excitement has been palpable. Twenty thousand fans turned up for his official unveiling (just two days before Scolari’s Teutonic-tinged nightmare in Belo Horizonte), and in early August, there were 46,000 at the Morumbi for what was to be his first game since returning to the club. He missed the match through injury.
“It’s an emotional moment, to come back to the club that made me, 11 years ago, where I started playing,” he said, at his welcome ceremony. “[T]o see you (the fans), my friends and my family here … this a special, memorable day.”
He hasn’t disappointed. He has been the driving force behind São Paulo’s “Fantastic Four.” Along with talented playmaker Paulo Henrique Ganso, former Milan forward Alexandre Pato, and striker Alan Kardec, Kaká and São Paulo mounted a challenge to Cruzeiro at the top of the table, a status that’s earned a recall to the Brazilian national team.
Kaka, Paulo Henrique Ganso, and Pato have all revitalized their careers this season at São Paulo. Kaká, however, moves on to his next phase after the campeonato as Orlando waits its “Brazilian Beckham.” (Photo: Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images Sport)
“These players have a lot of quality, and know what to do when they have the ball,” said former Barcelona, Chelsea and Brazil player Juliano Belletti, now an analyst for Brazilian TV. “But they’ve also been working hard to close the other team down … the running that Kaká is doing is terrific.”
Both Kaká and Scolari, then, have found a form of succor at the bosom of their former clubs. It is not an unheard of tale in Brazil, a country where roots and family are of huge importance. And it is especially common in Brazilian soccer where, along with adulation and an invariably generous pay for the player, the repatriation of old idols guarantees plaudits for often under-fire chairmen.
Yet it has not all been clear sailing for Kaká and Felipão. Since beating Cruzeiro in September, São Paulo’s form has nosedived, with the club taking one point in four games to fall 10 points behind the leaders. Kaká chances of capping his homecoming with a league title now look remote.
Scolari’s difficulties, however, go beyond mere results. After the racial abuse that Santos goalkeeper Aranha was subjected to when playing at Grêmio in the Copa do Brasil last month, the club was expelled from the tournament. Rather than accept the punishment or condemn fans’ abhorrent behavior, Scolari was among a number of senior figures at Grêmio who seemed to only mock Aranha and focus on the victimization of their club.
“Let’s see if they (the journalists) fall for his (Aranha’s) theatrics again this time,” the coach was heard saying to a Grêmio press officer before the two teams met again recently. He was roundly criticized by the Brazilian media. “It’s another 7-1 moment for Scolari,” ran the headline of one column. Assuming that making light of racism is a harder error to forgive than losing a soccer game, it is significantly worse.
A crowd of over 40,000 is expected when Grêmio and São Paulo go head-to-head at the Arena do Grêmio on Saturday, with both sides still in the hunt to qualifying spot for next year’s Copa Libertadores. Amidst the swirling intensity and impatience of Brazilian soccer, that is the very least the fans will accept. Fail, and Kaká and Scolari may find coming home is not as sweet as they had imagined.