Ask any of the footballers who have ever been managed by Luiz Felipe Scolari and they will all say the same thing: Felipão is not to be messed with. But, on a sunny morning in São Paulo, behind his aviator sunglasses and neatly trimmed moustache, he looks relaxed and content. Well he might. We are talking before the coronavirus pandemic shook the world and Scolari has been kicking back at home. “I’ve been on the beach for two months, every day,” he says. “It’s the first time I’ve been able to do that in 50 years.”
Scolari has been out of work since being sacked by Palmeiras in September and has been spending time in his native Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state, to plan his next steps and mull over the last half century. There is rather a lot to reflect on. As a manager he has worked in eight countries and been to three World Cups. There was a winner’s medal in 2002 and two more semi-final appearances, the second of which we will come to later.
Before that, there was a decade as a professional centre-back for a few middling Brazilian clubs. He describes himself, in his matter of fact, bullet-point style, as a “useful and effective” player. “It was rare that I lost a 50-50,” he says. “I had a lot of physical strength. I commanded my colleagues on the pitch. At 20, I was already captain. If there was a problem, I sorted it. If there were 40 games in the year, I played 39. I was a good player doing what I did for that team. I wasn’t flashy. I wasn’t technical.”
When he started out, he combined playing for Caxias, where he spent most of his career, with a degree and a job as a PE teacher. His father did not want him to follow a career in football. “He wanted me to study, to go into another profession”, says Scolari. The compromise was that he would do both.
At the time, Caxias played in the top flight of the Rio Grande do Sul state championship and Série A of the Brazilian national league. “These days, that’s unthinkable. I worked for seven or eight years as a teacher. I worked Monday morning, and on the mornings and evenings on Thursdays and Fridays. The rest of the time I trained and played.” The first trophy he ever lifted as coach was the state schools’ cup with a side that included current Brazil manager Tite. “It was hard, but it was a great time in my life. I learned a lot. I lived with different kinds of people, with kids, with my club colleagues, with my school colleagues. It was good for the formation of my character.”
That teacherly demeanour, with stern brow and exacting glare, has not faded. In Brazil he is renowned as a safety-first tactician, knockout tournament specialist and a master of man management. “I knew to which point I could influence people to grow, to play better, to be better people in their lives,” he says, “All of these things that I saw as a manager, I learned in school as a teacher.”
Looking back, particularly from a European perspective, there is a temptation to see Scolari’s triumph at the World Cup in 2002 as an inevitable consequence of the bountiful attacking talent at his disposal. But when he took over the Seleção in July 2001, Brazil were on to their fourth manager in three years and looked like they might not qualify. “At that time the Seleção didn’t have a great relationship with the people,” he recalls. “The fans didn’t believe. The mistrust continued; we’d win a game, then lose another.” It went down to the last round of qualifying games, with Brazil finally securing a place in Japan and South Korea thanks to a 3-0 win over Venezuela.
From there, a meticulous plan was put in place to prepare the team for the following summer. Their triumph, he says, owed as much to this foresight as it did to the skill of Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo. “Our doctors were fundamental. Our system of logistics was extremely well organised. People think: ‘Brazil have quality.’ They don’t imagine that the logistics are important, but they are. They think: ‘Brazilian players don’t need looking after because they’re highly technical.’ No. They need care.
“Let’s not forget that Ronaldo Nazário wasn’t playing in Italy. The club doctors said he was unlikely to play [the World Cup]. But our doctor, Dr. Runco, guaranteed that Ronaldo would be ready. At lunch and dinner, the physical preparation specialist, Paulo Paixão, sat next to Ronaldo. [He’d say] ‘No, you can’t eat that, no you mustn’t eat this. No, no,’ for one or two months. Rivaldo was going to have knee surgery in Barcelona but our doctor said: ‘No! I’ll help him recover doing only physiotherapy.’ Our logistics man, Américo Faria, spent 20 days beforehand travelling all around Korea and Japan. That was the great difference for Brazil at that World Cup.”
There was also the inspired tactical shift that freed up key players. “Brazil had only played with three centre-backs once, with Lazaroni, at the  World Cup… I developed that [plan] so that Cafu and Roberto Carlos were liberated to do what they did best. It was a surprise for the other teams. You had Roque Júnior, Edmílson and Lúcio, but one always went forward. Either Lúcio or Edmílson. It was Roque Junior who commanded the backline. He was the leader and gave the others freedom.”
As well as those three centre-backs, he also had great defensive midfielders. “I had the good fortune to find a player who knew how to position himself in front of this group. It was the work of destiny.” First-choice midfielder Emerson was injured in a training game on the eve of the tournament and Gilberto Silva replaced him. I mention that Arsenal fans refer to Gilberto as “The Invisible Wall”. “That’s the best definition I’ve heard,” Scolari responds with a smile. “He gave a platform to Edmilson, the full-backs. He allowed them to work.”
He also heaps praise on Juninho Paulista and the man who replaced him in the knockout stages, Kleberson, who he calls the team’s “little ant” due to his workrate. It is a reflection of Scolari’s ethos. Commitment is key; without it, individual talent cannot shine.
What does he remember about the final? “I remember being very worried. I remember the night before we were in a really big hotel. From the room at one end of the corridor to the room at the other end, it was about 100 metres. It was absurd. There was a really thick carpet. The day before the game, people are normally asleep at 11. The manager is worried about getting everyone to go to sleep, to rest. [But at midnight] I saw them relaxed, talking at the door to their rooms, playing. They were playing mini golf. They went to get golf clubs and balls, they put a plastic bag down as the hole. Ronaldo, Roque, Roberto Carlos, Ricardinho, Dida. Four or five of them, relaxed as anything.
“Then I looked and,” – he lets out a long sigh – “I relaxed a bit. I saw they were concerned, they had trained, prepared themselves. But they were confident. That was what won us the title. We played as if it were a normal game.”
They had knocked England out in the quarter-finals, the first of three meetings that Sven-Göran Eriksson’s men would have with Scolari – the next two as manager of Portugal – in consecutive major tournaments. Each match was marked by one of those curious occurrences that define summers.
In 2002, it was Ronaldinho’s infamous equaliser. “He wasn’t trying to score, he was trying to cross”, Felipão says, bluntly dismissing the player’s version of events. “Seaman took two steps forwards and that was it.”
In Lisbon two years later; penalties. Hélder Postiga’s Panenka, Ricardo’s gloveless heroics. “I didn’t know what Ricardo was doing. I didn’t understand. Everyone was perplexed. I don’t know if it was a way of inhibiting the adversary, if it was a feeling that he had. But he takes his gloves off, saves the penalty and then takes the last penalty. Sometimes as a coach you have to authorise the players to use their personality.”
Perhaps with those two games in mind, the FA offered Scolari the England job in 2006. But, he says, “They wanted me to sign the contract before the World Cup, that was the impasse. It would have been a strange situation. Me, coaching Portugal, getting through and coming up against England. I’d be Portugal manager but with a contract already signed with another country? It’s not right. [Otherwise] I would have gone with the greatest pleasure.”
In that match in Gelsenkirchen, Wayne Rooney was sent off for a kick on Manchester United teammate Cristiano Ronaldo. Scolari’s predilection for the dark arts is no secret. Did he send his players out to wind up the young England forward? “No, no, no. We don’t have that capacity to imagine that the adversary might do something like that”, he says, slightly unconvincingly. “But among the players, they know. They know who’s more explosive.”
He respects Eriksson and his teams, he says, but adds a caveat. “In 2002, England still played in that old-fashioned English way. Long balls up in the air. England now, in the last few years, give the impression of playing a more sophisticated game. They have a better chance now than they used to have [at major tournaments]. In 2018, they went well, and they have improved. The clubs modified their thinking. The basic infrastructure of clubs has developed. I’m seeing more English players with technical skills.”
The England job escaped him but he was given a chance to move to London in July 2008, when Roman Abramovich brought him in to replace Avram Grant at Chelsea. It started well and the Blues were top of the league until late November. But Scolari was sacked in early February 2009 after some poor results exacerbated issues that had bubbled under the surface. “Chelsea had some problems with injuries, some problems in the team. I had a form of leadership that clashed with one or two players,” he says. Who? “Anelka and Drogba.”
The problems began before he even reached the dugout at Stamford Bridge. “Our medical department thought we should let Drogba go and recover [from surgery] in Cannes, in the middle of summer. I thought he should stay in London. I would also like to go to Cannes in the middle of summer. I’d stay there for a month, two months, enjoying myself.
“When he came back, I tried to adapt so that Drogba and Anelka could play together. Anelka was the top scorer in the league. We had a meeting and Anelka said: ‘I only play in one position.’ So, there was a bit of a lack of friendship, of respect, of trying to play together with Drogba. They were both great, but someone had to do something different, to get back to help when we lost the ball. That was when it changed a bit. But we’ve met since then, me and Drogba. The last time was in Russia in 2018. We spoke openly about it. There wasn’t any ill intention from him or Anelka. But it happened and I lost out on one of the great chances of my life.
“I wanted to keep working in England. I would work at any club, I think it’s marvellous. We went to play against Portsmouth and Sunderland, in stadiums that hold 20,000 people. 19,000 people are cheering for the team from their city. I think that’s really beautiful. [As opposed to Brazil, the English] don’t support the big clubs, they support their clubs.”
There was another World Cup, too; just as well remembered, if for all the wrong reasons. In 2012, a decade after the glory in Japan, he was back leading the Seleção. And at first, it was brilliant. After the Confederations Cup win at the Maracanã in 2013, the team was dripping in confidence and the nation was exploding with anticipation. A year later, the unthinkable happened.
Was that confidence misplaced; did it hinder them? For the first time, Scolari is slightly evasive, umming and ahhing before replying. “I don’t know if it got in the way. I can say that we played and won the games in the way that we knew we were going to win, some with a bit more difficulty.
“When we got to the semi-final, we had that moment of disequilibrium.” He fiddles with his shirt collar and then corrects himself. “Some moments of disequilibrium. And we lost. Ah, [they say], ‘Because we were imbued with the sense that we were better.’ No. We lost because of our mistakes. They happened and they were splendidly well taken advantage of by Germany. And then it was that disaster in terms of image, especially here in Brazil.”
Before the game Júlio César and David Luiz held up the shirt of Neymar, who had been injured in the quarter-final against Colombia, a moment that has been interpreted as indicative of the team’s overly emotional state. “It’s easy to criticise afterwards. If we had won, that would have been a heroic act. No. It was a way of showing that one of their friends was missing. It’s not in this way that we’re going to find the justification.
“We lost because we didn’t play well, because we had momentary lapses of concentration. We lost because of the quality of Germany. We lost because we didn’t have the opportunity to position ourselves to make things difficult for Germany. I’m not going to look for justifications that are not the normal justifications of football.
“In the first 10, 15 minutes, we were playing an even game. Everything was equal until the first Germany goal. After that, we conceded three in seven minutes. Then there was a general pane.” The word is an interesting one; pane in Portuguese is usually employed to describe a machine or motor malfunctioning. “There was a mistake from one player, a mistake from another. We couldn’t stop them. Germany took advantage. They were a very good team. And that was it.”
The reaction was predictably hysteric. “It was the biggest bomb, the biggest disaster that the Seleção has ever suffered, probably. In 1950 they lost, it was a disaster, but they lost 2-1. Because of the number of goals, [our loss] was different.” It must have had a profound effect on him. “Yes, yes. I was the person most closely associated with the disaster. I am until today. I was the one who took most of the blame. When Brazil won in 2002, I wasn’t the greatest hero. We were all heroes. [In 2014] I expected that all of us [would be blamed], that the press would acknowledge that Brazil lost. But that’s not how it was.”
A month later, he was back in a job with Grêmio, where he had enjoyed a glorious spell in the mid-1990s. He had originally intended to take some time to “think and reorganise”, but Grêmio wanted a firm hand to manage the club through a financial restructuring and promote youth-team prospects such as Everton and Arthur, who have since gone on to represent the Seleção. For Scolari, immersing himself in a job at the club he supported as a boy was the best remedy.
He has since gone on to achieve success in China with Guangzhou Evergrande, before returning to Brazil in 2018 with Palmeiras, where he won Série A. It was his 24th club trophy as a manager and came a full three decades after his first. After getting knocked out of the Copa Libertadores last year, a group of ultras made death threats against him, but after all these years, it takes more than that to faze him. “I wasn’t bothered,” he chuckles. “You can’t be scared of people who are strong in a group but not when they’re alone.”
At 71, he is still hoping to return to the game. But he does not appear in a desperate hurry, which, given the current circumstances, is just as well. If he does come back, though, he promises he will put all that experience and the replenished energy from his time on the beach to good use. “I’ve watched the Premier League. I’ve watched games in Brazil. I’ve had time to examine the games, examine teams and the goals that have been scored. I’ll come back better than I was before.”