Indifferent to the idea of football as art, Luiz Felipe Scolari embodies the figure of the paternal leader who is both exacting and protective of his players, in the name of victory at any costDaniel Galera
Minutes before the friendly between Brazil and South Africa, held on May 5th of this year in Johannesburg, coach Luiz Felipe Scolari conceded a live interview on the sidelines to a reporter from the Globo Network. There were just two questions. Would the team try to reproduce its solid performance in the last Confederations Cup, having taken the championship after a convincing 3-0 against Spain in the final? Did Felipão plan on observing newly called-up players Rafinha and Fernandinho during the game in order to decide whether they would get a slot on the final list for the 2014 World Cup?
His expression dripping with the most profound boredom, the coach answered these questions with mumbles that were simply affirmative, simplified versions of the questions themselves. Suddenly, the already-loud noise of the fans in the stadium hit deafening levels, a pandemonium of yells and vuvuzelas. Felipão furrowed his brow, hunched his shoulders, gestured with his head towards the noise, and, to the perplexity of the reporter, retired while saying something like: “Leave it for later…”
This episode represents a few important things about Scolari. The most obvious is his trademark aversion to spectacle. The disdain and fatigue worn into his posture, the routine confirmations in response to questions and the sly retreat forged a striking contrast to the jingoistic expectations hovering around the broadcast, the vibrant colors, and the hyperreal resolution of the HD image. The ritual mask of sports coverage fell for a moment. This anti-spectacular posture is also woven into Scolari’s conception of football, of results and victory at all costs, even if that cost is often the visual beauty of the game and the idea of “football as art” (“Go on and write, write poetry,” Felipão will advise defenders of the , according to journalist Juca Kfouri). He was demonstrably intelligent in conceding the interview on this occasion. The coach, a gaúcho (a native of Brazil’s South), is fractious with the press, but he wouldn’t repeat the mistakes of Dunga, who chose to make the Globo Network his enemy and paid dearly for it.
Finally, there is his remarkable physical presence, the air of a good-natured roughneck, his watery eyes, well-trimmed white moustache, the forehead stretching up to his balding head, almost always wrinkled by his raised eyebrows. At least in public, Scolari’s expression transmits a certain neediness, as if an invisible finger were pulling up the space between his eyebrows. His characteristic head-wagging, sloping shoulders, and large, slightly clumsy frame give him a disarmed, somewhat childish air. When he played as a defender for CSA, in Maceió, his fellow players nicknamed him Baby Head, for the way he wagged his head when he made a mistake on the field or was displeased.
Journalists, fans, and public opinion tend to see Felipão as truculent, coarse, or even aggressive. This version of the man is vehemently contested by any person close to him, and significantly undercut when we go to the south of the country, where figures much like Felipão are part of the landscape in the regions colonized by Italian immigrants. Many families like the Scolaris came to the city from small rural properties. Around these parts, we run into men like him at gas stations and family restaurants, waiting on customers with their thick farmers’ forearms and fingers, and with a wary attitude that strikes no-one as uncommon.
Independently of being rough or kind, a Machiavellian general or a happy simpleton, the bane of playful football (futebol moleque) or the harbinger of hard-fought football, in the next two months Felipão can secure his place as the most victorious coach in Brazil’s history if he takes the national team to its sixth championship. As if playing a World Cup on home turf weren’t pressure enough, there are also the political and social pressures of an election year, on top of a grassroots mobilization that, since June of last year, has targeted the corruption and abuses related to hosting the event in Brazil, among other things. There are a number of possible outcomes, some of them more than a bit melancholy for Felipão. But even some of his traditional detractors seem to believe that he will come out on top.
Luiz Felipe Scolari was born on November 9th, 1948 in Passo Fundo, the largest city in the north of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, nearly 300 kilometers from the state capital, Porto Alegre. The most complete panorama of his biography may be found in the book Felipão: A Alma do Penta [Felipão: The Soul of the Five-Time Champions], published by journalist Ruy Carlos Ostermann in 2002. It has the tone of a panegyric, but provides a valuable assortment of information on the life of the coach, his family’s origins, and the action behind the scenes at the World Cup in Japan. In 1891, Felipão’s great-grandmother, Luigia Bellini Scolari, then widowed, left with her six children from the province of Verona in the Italian region of Veneto, landing at the port of Rio Grande. The youngest, Luigi, Felipão’s grandfather, changed his name to Luiz and married Genoveva Giavarina, a native of Nova Palma in the center of the state. On Scolari Farm, a 70-hectare area four kilometers outside downtown Passo Fundo, the couple lived with their children Damor, Benjamim, Alberto, and Alcides, and then with subsequent daughters-in-law and grandchildren as well.
The Scolaris were a typical gaúcho clan of Italian immigrants, in which the whole family worked on taking care of the crops and the herds. Son of Benjamim and Leda Scolari, Luiz Felipe would live on his family’s farm for only a short while before his parents moved to downtown Passo Fundo, where Benjamim opened the Bolão Snooker Scolari Bar and settled the family in the back rooms of the building. Little Luiz Felipe kicked around the football with the boys on the street and defied the law by playing billiards.
A mediocre student who struggled not to flunk out, Luiz Felipe began frequenting the practice football fields at the various schools he attended. His first inspiration was undoubtedly his father, who played on amateur teams. Although the two shared the same stout frame, Benjamim was a calm man and had a way with the ball. As a defender Luiz Felipe had more will than talent, but passion, dedication, and physical strength made up for his technical limitations. In A Alma do Penta, one of his high school classmates comments, “He was null as a player, but he would overcome that with his determination, he had grit. He wouldn’t back down, and he took on a leadership role in carrying the team forward. He never liked to lose.”
In 2005, when he was still coaching the Portuguese national team, Felipão went to Porto Alegre in his capacity as ex-player for a tribute to the best fifteen defenders in Brazilian football. It is hard to say how serious this ceremony was, given gaúchos’ legendary preference for their own and the tone of good-natured mockery that surrounded Felipão’s past as an athlete. But the combination of little talent, firing long balls, and a bit of truculence can bring results. This itself is a kind of talent, after all. In 1981, Felipão was voted the best defender in the Alagoas state championship, after helping CSA to conquer the title (the only one in Felipão’s career as a player).
His experience as an athlete, from the practice fields of Passo Fundo to the title in Alagoas, contains elements that may help us understand the coach that he would become. In 1964 his family moved to Canoas, in the metropolitan area of Porto Alegre, following in the steps of two of Luiz Felipe’s uncles – who, just a few years before, had built a gas station alongside the BR-116 highway. From age 17 to age 19 he played for Grêmio São Cristóvão, an amateur local team. In 1966 he tried out for Internacional’s youth squad, but the salary they offered was less than he made working at the Scolaris’ gas station.
It was around this time that he met Olga Pasinato, who lived in the hotel across from the gas station. Both were 16. Equally pious, they started dating shortly thereafter and were married in Caxias do Sul, in 1973. The couple had two sons, Leonardo and Fabrício. Olga taught biology until the mid-1980s, when it became difficult to make her job line up with her husband’s career. The couple is unusual in a few respects. For a start, Olga roots for Internacional. According to Ostermann’s biography, Olga likes traveling, paints, and would rather live in Europe; Felipão, meanwhile, would never leave Rio Grande do Sul if it weren’t necessary, and only thinks about football and work.
His career as a professional player began in 1968 in Aimoré, a team from São Leopoldo, where young Felipão was evaluated by Oswaldo Rolla – also known as Foguinho, a player and coach who had a history with Grêmio, as well as an important role in the construction of the club’s identity. Foguinho helped to solidify the so-called “gaúcho style” of playing, which places the group, tactical rigidity, and a healthy amount of elbow grease (in both its literal and euphemistic senses) above dribbles, the , and individual talent. In a program shown on Rio Grande do Sul network RBS TV in 1993, he says, “My first criterion as a coach was observing the character of the man, the worth of the man, because if he isn’t a worthy man, with character, he can’t be a part of a football team.” This vision of the football field as a battlefield, in which a man’s character is revealed in strength and discipline, in the search for results, guided by the principle of “whatever it takes,” is the ethos faced by both the critics and devotees of Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Luiz Felipe played for Aimoré until 1973. Pressured by his family, who considered football a profession with no future, he began studying law and economics at UNISINOS in São Leopoldo, one of the leading private universities in the state; but neither was his cup of tea, and he soon abandoned them to study physical education at the Instituto Porto Alegre. Around the same time, he also taught physical education classes in the public schools of Montenegro, 55 kilometers from the state capital. He was constantly in and out of an old red Volkswagen Bug, part of a line of aging, cheap cars that would reinforce his reputation as a miser (he also owned several other Bugs, a Fiat 147, and a Monza). He passed in tryouts for larger teams, such as Joinville and Coritiba, but ties to his family kept him in Canoas for a few years.
In August 1973, he visited the club Caxias do Sul as the proxy for a friend who planned on playing there. His firm stance so impressed the managers during the negotiation that he wound up being hired. Caxias’ coach at the time, Sérgio Moacir Torres Nunes, who had a reputation as an overly defensive thinker, would become a friend and idol. According to journalist João Garcia, a close friend of Felipão’s, Sérgio Moacir is one of his three greatest influences as a coach. (Felipão apparently inherited from his hero, among other traits, his distrust of the press.) The second great influence is coach Ênio Andrade, a strategist who could sub players at crucial points in the game and turn scores around.
The third and greatest influence is Carlos Benvenuto Froner, “Captain Froner,” a former military man who coached both Grêmio and Internacional and passed through Caxias in 1978, when Luiz Felipe was still on the team. Garcia says that Froner “was everything for Felipão.” He demanded implacable marking, tactical obedience, and total dedication. He was a specialist in riling up players in the locker room with a torrent of curses, and treated the press to lashes of the whip, falling back on the motto “We’ll see” in responding to questions. Froner died on August 21st, 2002, less than two months after Felipão took the Brazilian national team to its fifth championship. The disciple wept at his master’s funeral.
Under Froner’s command, in Caxias, Scolari the player must have heard the same kind of vocabulary and felt the harsh demands that today lend him his reputation as a severe sergeant figure. A motivational session in the locker room may not always be pleasant to witness. After a 4-3 defeat in the first game against Corinthians in the 2000 Copa Libertadores de América, the press surreptitiously recorded Felipão chewing out his Palmeiras players (an episode which enraged the coach and further complicated his relationship with the São Paulo press). In the audio, he calls Corinthians player Edilson a “yellow, punk sonofabitch,”calls out his players for not knowing how to dole out punches and kicks, and bellows at them to “feel rage” and “bite their ears off” in the following game. Scandal, nightly news, etc. But locker-room language, like the language used on the field, was not made to help families digest their dinners before watching the telenovela. The insults and the encouragements to play dirty are also part of what Luiz Carlos Silveira Martins, “Cacalo,” a former Grêmio manager who worked closely alongside Felipão for years, defines as his “extraordinary power to communicate with athletes.” In the next game, Palmeiras scored 3-2 and won on penalty kicks, sealing a spot in the final match – which would be lost, also on penalty kicks, to Boca Juniors.
Despite his reputation for playing rough, Felipão was only sent off once in all the time he played for Caxias. He left the club in 1979 and passed quickly through Novo Hamburgo and Juventude, as well as spending a short while teaching football in the United States, before he was hired as a defender by CSA in Alagoas, in 1981. At the end of that season, at age 33, he filled in for his gaúcho compatriot Walmir Lorunz and inaugurated his career as a professional coach, hanging up his cleats for good. He wouldn’t make it two months as CSA’s coach, and was out after a disastrous season start in the Taça de Ouro, the name given to the Brazilian national championship from 1981 to 1983. In a letter to his sister around this period, Felipão wondered, “Will I ever succeed as a coach, one day?”
For a Grêmio fan, it was impossible not to root for Felipão during the 2002 World Cup. You could even not root for Brazil. But seeing Felipão triumph would be a bit like seeing Grêmio triumph, so strong was the identification between club and coach in the wake of the glorious period from 1993 to 1996, the turning point that carried him up to the heights of the great football coaches. In those nearly four years, he won a Copa do Brasil, a Campeonato Brasileiro, a Libertadores de América, a Recopa Sudamericana, and two state championships. In the 1995 World Club Cup final, Grêmio clung on to a 0-0 tie against an all-powerful Ajax (Grêmio with one man down for the better part of the second half), lost on penalty kicks and took second place. This was one of Felipão’s greatest scars – as well as for the fans – but, even so, what a time to wear Grêmio’s jersey. On that day, I was camping with some friends on a beach in Santa Catarina. We walked 8 kilometers along a dirt road until we found a house with a television. The family served us cake and coffee, and the recollection helps to make up for the frustration of the defeat.
But Felipão’s start at Grêmio was not met with adoration from the fans. Although he had already won a state championship for the club in his first stint as coach, in 1987, he was still seen as an overly defensive coach of rural teams with hazy experience in Middle Eastern football, whose greatest feat was having led Criciúma to win the Copa do Brasil in 1991. After his premiere in CSA, Felipão had taken on command of Juventude, which went on a tour of Asia and the Middle East. Felipão’s team won all six games it played, including one against Telê Santana’s Al Ahli.
In March 1983, he had led Brasil de Pelotas, taking the club to the first division. The team’s trainer was Flávio Teixeira, “Murtosa,” who Felipão calls “Baixinho” (Shorty) or “Mortosa.” The nickname comes from the Portuguese village which his grandfather left to immigrate to Brazil. The two men would become thick as thieves. Short, stocky, mustachioed Murtosa would be Felipão’s shield-bearer in Palmeiras, Cruzeiro, the Brazilian national team, and on a number of international excursions. In a 2005 interview on the television show Roda Viva, Scolari tried to explain the role Murtosa played. “I always say that Murtosa is more first than second, but the second is very important in the life of the first,” he said, more than a little cryptically. “Sometimes I get a scowl that the players don’t want to see… and Murtosa is everything that I don’t show, sometimes.” The affable, almost cartoonish figure of Flávio Teixeira stays far from the spotlight and winds up as the practical arm of Felipão’s coaching.
In addition to Murtosa, another figure has been at Felipão’s side since 1991, when the two met in Criciúma: the priest Pedro Bauer da Cunha. A native of Sombrio, in Santa Catarina, the padre is a passionate Palmeiras fan and an exemplary orator. He became a sort of lucky charm for Scolari, who also confesses to the priest; he blessed the coach’s apartment before setting off for the 2002 World Cup, and raised the players’ spirits before decisive games, staying over with the team on nights before games back when Felipão coached Palmeiras.
Through businessman Elias Zaccour, whom he had met on Juventude’s international tour, Felipão gained access to the world of Middle Eastern football, gaining financial independence through his stints at clubs such as Al Shabab, in Saudi Arabia (1984-1985) and Quadsia SC in Kuwait (1988-1990), as well as coaching the Kuwait national team in 1990. Olga and the children always followed him. The family missed the Gulf War by a hair: Felipão was preparing the team in France for the Asian Games, and his wife and children had come from Brazil.
Scolari had just returned from a season in the Middle East when he was called back to Grêmio. By now he had won himself a fortune and some experience, but he had practically no credit in Brazil. In late 1993, Grêmio fans even pressured for him to step down. Bit by bit, however, his preference for football based on grit began translating into titles, and he became Grêmio fans’ greatest hero. In the first half of 1994, he won the Copa do Brasil in a harrowing final, which even featured an unmarked penalty in favor of Ceará. Grêmio was emerging from a dark period, fresh off a year in the second division. With each upraised trophy, the mythomania of “us against the world” grew ever stronger, rallying behind this Grêmio that defeated Parmalat faced down the Brazilian Confederation of Football and was the incarnation of gaúcho resistance – and the gaúcho way of playing football – in defiance of those folks up north.
One of the keys to his success in Grêmio during the 1990s was his symbiotic relationship with then-president Fábio Koff and vice-president of football Cacalo, with whom he formed a dynamic duo capable of riling up players’ mettle. Cacalo emphasizes what he calls Scolari’s “high level of sensitivity,” saying that “Felipão is irritatingly intelligent and sensitive when it comes to football.” By way of example, he recalls the time when Felipão benched an uncontested starter on the eve of a decisive match, alleging simply that “he didn’t practice like I asked him to.” Cacalo, trainer Paulo Paixão and captain Adílson Batista pleaded with him until, at the last minute, Felipão gave in. The player gave it his all on the field after being threatened with the bench, and that was when Cacalo understood the psychological trick. Journalist David Coimbra recalls a similar episode. Player Paulo Nunes apparently showed up to practice one morning drunk. Felipão sent him to sleep it off in the locker room and let it be known to the press that he was dealing with an injury. Nunes played his heart out in the next match by way of thanks for this kindness.
This combination of severe demands with an understanding, protective attitude towards the players is behind the publicizing of the figure of the coach as a “dad” to his players, which Scolari is adept at exploiting for the press and public opinion. “He’s not a dad figure, that’s a marketing stunt that he sells,” says Cacalo. “It’s just unity of the group in the locker room, through leadership and demands. He takes a professional tone, but he understands [his players] as human beings.”
There is a concrete side to the paternal myth. Felipão has a track record of protecting the players that he coaches. When he came to Grêmio in 1993, the club was financially blighted, and he resolved to lend his own money to pay players their bichinho, their bonus for victories on the field – which, according to Cacalo, was about “R$100 or R$200.” “He understands football players,” says João Garcia. “He looks them in the eye, knows they have problems and helps them figure out problems with the wife, or with the kids.” He seeks to transmit his own familial devotion to the players, and intercedes when he sees a young athlete pouring away his money on a new car instead of helping his parents.
Even on winning campaigns, Felipão still underwent crises of insecurity. Cacalo recalls an emblematic case. In 1995, just a month before the World Club Cup in Tokyo, Grêmio lost to Portuguesa, 3-2, in Chapecó (Santa Catarina). After the game, in the locker room, Felipão called the manager over to a corner, under a staircase, and asked to step down. “I’m out, I don’t want to go anymore.” Cacalo argued that this was a minor defeat, but Felipão wouldn’t hear it. “I didn’t like what happened here today, and I want out.” His resignation was not accepted. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” Cacalo told him. “You’re going to stay even if we have to make you, but you’re not leaving!” On the trip back, Cacalo spoke to the captain of the chartered flight and took Felipão up to “play pilot” in the cabin. “He enjoyed himself and forgot all about asking to step down. He used to have those sort of fits. Then he matured.”
In January 1997, Felipão bid farewell to Grêmio and went off to coach Jubilo Iwata, in Japan. A similar exit had almost taken place in late 1995, then to Yokohama Flugels, but the president of Grêmio, Fábio Koff, managed to re-negotiate and hang on to his coach, who scribbled down the new terms of his contract on a napkin and produced the same napkin over a year later in order to claim the sums they had agreed on. The anecdote is invoked by those who know Felipão in order to illustrate his character as a man of his word, one who operates on trust. It is difficult to find those who can question his integrity in terms of the commitments he undertakes – at least, until you speak to a Coritiba fan. In 1990, before Felipão had made a name for himself as a coach in Brazil, Coritiba lost their third straight match under his command in the second division of the Brasileiro, against Juventude de Caxias do Sul. Scolari had only been at the head of the team for seventeen days. Backed into a corner, he got onto the adversary’s bus, left with them, and never came back.
Felipão came to Palmeiras in June 1997 after a short stint with Jubilo Itawa. The negotiation was mediated by Fábio Koff at the request of Palmeiras’ president at the time, Mustafá Contursi. It would come as no surprise if the fans rejected this choice, given the rivalry between Palmeiras and Grêmio at the time and the coach’s irascibility, but Felipão was excited by the idea of coaching a large club in one of the country’s major capitals, a team on the rise after settling a sponsorship deal with Parmalat. After a rocky start, the coach slowly won over the club’s fans through positive results, and inaugurated one of the club’s most victorious epochs. The team came in second in the 1997 Brazilian national championship and won the Copa do Brasil and the Copa Mercosur in 1998. The peak came in 1999, with a previously unconquered title: the Libertadores de América. Once again he let a world title slip through his fingers, with a loss in the World Club Cup to Manchester United. He would take Palmeiras to the next year’s Libertadores final as well, but lost to Boca Juniors on penalties.
At first, Felipão struggled to adapt to traffic-ridden, chaotic life in the capital of São Paulo, but soon found his place in the hubs of Italian immigration in the city, whose culture and gastronomy recalled his rural gaúcho origins. He was adored by his players. His relationship with fans, however, swung freely between love and hate. The ultra Mancha Verde paid tribute to the coach after the 1999 Libertadores and called for his head soon thereafter, after the defeat in the World Club Cup final. Scolari was called a genius and an idiot. After he left in 2000, Murtosa took over the team and saw Palmeiras win the Copa dos Campeões against Sport, in Maceió. After the match, while the team celebrated their victory, hoisting the trophy in the rain, reporter Marcello Lima from radio station Jovem Pan put Felipão on the line. The players lined up to speak to their ex-coach. “I’d never seen anything like it. A line of seven or eight players standing there at midfield, waiting to talk to Felipe,” the reporter recalls. “It went on like that in the locker room. I stood there about two hours, holding my cell phone. Even the wardrobe guy talked to him.”
Things didn’t go as smoothly with the press. It was around this period that the clash between his temperament and the footballing culture in Rio and São Paulo crystallized his reputation as a rough, harsh drill sergeant. Felipão was accustomed to the sporting press in Porto Alegre, with its encouraging bent, and was stunned by the exacting, far less receptive attitude he found in São Paulo. Nor was the city’s press accustomed to the type of figure that Felipão represents. One of his children, Fabrício, then eight years old, saw his father called “truculent” on television and went to ask what that meant. Felipão was livid.
Marcello Lima recalls that, on one occasion, the coach carried out a “trust test” with a few journalists. He left the club with his “little 007 bag” and commented – in the presence of Murtosa, press agent Acaz Fellegger, and a few reporters – that he was going around São Paulo armed, because of the city’s lack of security. The next day, one of the reporters wrote, with sensationalistic flourish, that Luiz Felipe Scolari was perennially armed. Felipão confronted the reporter, revealed that he had made up the story, and announced that he would never speak to the man again. The false piece of information had been shared in an informal context, outside a press conference. This was an intrusion – but, more than that, it was a betrayal. One of the tensest moments with the press around this period came when the coach assaulted reporter Gilvan Ribeiro of the Diário Popular. Felipão was irritated by an insistent question involving his alleged involvement in banning fans from watching practices. After an exchange of curses, he punched the reporter in the face.
For Scolari, journalists are, by definition, gossipers. A good professional in the press is someone he has a personal relationship with – a friend – or someone he establishes a frank rapport with, the kind that journalist Juca Kfouri calls “eye to eye.” Despite having criticized the coach on more than one occasion, Kfouri guarantees that the two have an excellent relationship. “You have to face him down straightforwardly. What irritates him are traps.” He reveals that Felipão has visited him a few times in his apartment, to chat off the record during difficult periods.
During the last Confederations Cup, Kfouri asked Felipão’s agent for two minutes in private conversation and was turned down. During the press conference, however, while defender David Luiz was talking to journalists, he was instructed to “go over behind that column” in five minutes’ time. Kfouri obeyed. In the corner of the room, behind a screen, “hidden there like a child,” was Felipão. “Psst, what do you want?” In a brief conversation, Felipão confirmed that his wife Olga would be there at the final and joked about the protests tearing up the streets. “These protests in the streets… you must be loving them! You don’t have anything to do with that, d’you?”
Felipão has a press agent who, if conversations with sports journalists are any judge, has more trouble with the press than his client. Acaz Fellegger was hired by Parmalat to serve as Palmeiras’ press officer. Mustafá, the club’s president, disliked the man and tried to fire him, but the sponsor wouldn’t allow it. When the firing finally came through, Felipão and a group of players proposed that he open his own firm and represent them. In the run-up to the World Cup, Fellegger has acted like a wall around Felipão. For three months he shot down all interview attempts made by piauí. “He’s not even responding to FIFA’s requests, so why would he talk to you?” Although Felipão’s attitude in dealing with the press is more often seen as a demonstration of aggression or scorn, he has a real difficulty in expressing himself in front of cameras and microphones. Cacalo believes that “Felipe has a certain sense of preservation and inhibition, because of his shyness. The ease of communication that he has in the locker room doesn’t exist on mike.” Scolari’s language is that of the pep talk – perfect for motivating teams, but it falls short in public debate. “He creates a certain distance from the microphone, not from the person asking the question,” Cacalo explains. “He feels attacked. His curtness on these occasions has plenty to do with self-defense.”
João Garcia has another take: “Felipão uses the image of an ignoramus as a shield, because he has a lot of heart. And that’s dangerous. People take advantage of that.” The word “heart” is used often by those who know the coach. In a sense, Felipão is an example of the cordial man as defined by Sérgio Buarque de Holanda. The concept is often confused with an image of the wise, festive figure open to contact with everything and everyone. When he coined the expression in Roots of Brazil, the historian was actually seeking to capture a formative trait of the country, in which personal and emotional relationships, the “ties of blood and the heart,” are placed above the “ritualistic notion of life” and the cold letter of the law. In understanding Felipão, it helps to see him as a man who can only feel comfortable when moving through the realm of cordiality. In this, despite the gaúcho identity that distances him in certain senses from the other regions of the country, he is typically Brazilian.
Felipão got his first invitation from Ricardo Teixeira to coach the Brazilian national team in October 2000, when he had just come to Cruzeiro, but he turned it down. Emerson Leão would take Vanderlei Luxemburgo’s place. Under his command, the Seleção, Brazil’s national team, was knocked out in the Confederations Cup and ran the risk of not qualifying for the World Cup. When the invitation was renewed, Scolari’s campaign at the head of Cruzeiro was going well and now included the trophy of the 2001 Copa Sul-Minas, which brought him to tie Telê Santana’s mark of 15 titles over 19 years in action.
This was a tense moment. A Parliamentary Commission of Inquiry on football was holding investigations, and there were five matches left in the World Cup qualifiers. Felipão took the job on June 12th, packed his bags, called Murtosa, and went to Rio the next day for call-ups. In the first match of the qualifiers under his command, Brazil lost to Uruguay 1-0. More serious turbulence would come with the Copa América in July. The Seleção was eliminated in the quarterfinals with a frightful 2-0 defeat to Honduras. Felipão began losing the support of the fans and was assailed by the press.
On top of that, there was Romário. In his biography, Ostermann chalks the souring of relations between Felipão and the ace from Rio to an incident that led to a basic loss of trust. Romário asked to be excused from the Copa América due to an eye surgery, but he went to Mexico to play for Vasco during the same period and then went on vacation in the Caribbean. Felipão began leaving him off his list, to the fury of many fans and journalists, especially in Rio de Janeiro. The coach’s alleged reasons were always tactical. If Ostermann’s version is correct, then Felipão left out the true motive – the breach of trust. Juca Kfouri thinks that the key factor was purely pragmatic: “Romário was a foreign element in the Felipão family.” The coach intuited that he would be more of a hindrance than a help, and put his chips on the Ronaldos and Rivaldo. Kfouri, like many, believes that the road to Brazil’s fifth World Cup title would have been much easier with the presence of the current federal deputy, who has been a ferocious critic of the irregularities around the hosting of this year’s Cup in Brazil. His press agent informed me that he would not speak about Felipão.
In his book Veneno Remédio: o Futebol e o Brasil [Poison/Cure: Football and Brazil], José Miguel Wisnik writes that the charismatic style of Felipão’s work in 2002 lent the campaign “more of the tone of an efficient administration of human resources than of preparation for a tactical sequence of chess games on the field.” The Felipão style clashed head-on with public opinion, but worked magic with the athletes. “Felipão didn’t seem to intimidate the players or distance them with the schematic, theoretical coldness of a coach like Parreira, the myth- and title-laden manias of grandeur of a coach like Zagallo, or the dandyism of a coach like Vanderlei Luxemborgo,” Wisnik writes.
In A Alma do Penta, Ostermann, one of the few journalists that Scolari trusts, reproduces the pages of a diary that the coach kept, at his request, during the 2002 campaign. These are immensely valuable in capturing Felipão’s modus operandi, at least at the time. Emphasis is given to the varying tactical schemes used, almost all variations on a 3-5-2. Alterations that transformed the playing system, such as Kléberson’s entry in the place of Juninho Paulista against Belgium, are mentioned matter-of-factly, rather than commented on. Most of the annotations refer to the pre-game talks given to players, which begin with tactical instructions and end with motivational presentations that can include speeches, music, videos, and the presentation of critiques and taunts plucked from press across the world. For example: “All understood, and I end the talk with a ten-minute reel of the Brazilian people and the Seleção, using an Ivete Sangalo song with a very Bahian rhythm at the end, with goals and the participation of most of the athletes. It was very interesting to observe the athletes’ reaction. They asked to bring the video to the field, and [requested] the reel to watch and listen to before the game. I think we achieved the objective.”
Rivaldo’s performance in the 2002 national team is one of the most thorough examples of Felipão’s ability to identify a player’s needs, direct individual talent, and assign him an appropriate role within the dynamics of the group. Discreet, not given to ostentation and the creator of a brilliant, but unobtrusive style of football, Rivaldo suffered what Wisnik refers to as an “anguish of recognition.” As Juca Kfouri says, “Felipão understood that Rivaldo was a shrinking violet.” With the help of psychologist Regina Brandão, who assists him in drawing up profiles of the athletes, the coach recognized his player’s introspective bent and adjusted his approach. Just as there are players who only respond to shouts, with Rivaldo it was essential to never raise his voice. Felipão apparently secretly assured him that that he was a guaranteed starter and the captain of the midfield, even if he played badly for two or three straight games.
“It is impossible to downplay Rivaldo’s role in this campaign,” Wisnik writes. Tactically, he was the most well-rounded player in the team, contributing with precise assists and inspired finishes. His dedication was such that, acting completely out of character, he starred in what I consider one of the greatest plays in the history of Brazilian football. In overtime against Turkey, placed to take a corner kick, Rivaldo was hit slightly above the knee by Turkish defender Ünsal. The player reflexively twisted his body to the side, brought both hands up to his face and threw himself to the ground “as if he were suffering a cerebral hemorrhage,” in the words of the president of the Turkish Federation of Football at the time. The Turkish player was sent off. It was a surreal moment. The live transmission had registered the dive up close, in an almost didactic exposition. I remember having leapt out of my chair, howling with glee. FIFA wound up fining Rivaldo for the trick. Players like Roberto Carlos and Denílson defended the play as an intelligent one. Rogério Ceni declared that Rivaldo was simply “defending Brazil’s interests.” A united family. That was a Scolari team. That was football.
But the most important situation involving Rivaldo happened backstage, far from the cameras, shortly before the final against Germany. In the middle of the pre-game talk, the quiet player with jersey #10 did something completely new: he asked to have a word. “Boss, I want to talk.” Among other things, he said that, if necessary, he would pass the ball to Ronaldo Nazário, so that Brazil could take its fifth championship. It didn’t matter if his teammate was the top scorer and took the glory of the conquest. This was a shocking declaration, which might appear spontaneous, but was profoundly tied to the conversations between the player and Felipão. Indeed, in Brazil’s second goal against Germany in the final, Kléberson passes to the edge of the penalty box, Ronaldo yells “Open up!” and Rivaldo opens his legs and plays a dummy so that his teammate can control the ball and lob it into the net. Ronaldo runs out in celebration, arms wide. Rivaldo is left behind, trotting slowly, opens his arms for just a second, and the camera loses him from sight.
After taking the World Cup with a perfect campaign of seven victories, Felipão was invited to head up the Portuguese national team, a job he held for five years. When he arrived, the population had little interest in their national team. Felipão knew that he could not achieve his goals without first conquering the support and the passion of the fans. Among his stratagems was an appeal to the strength of Portuguese religiosity. Felipão is a fervent Catholic, a follower of Our Lady of Caravaggio, whose largest Brazilian shrine is in the municipality of Farroupilha, close by Caxias do Sul. He takes part in pilgrimagesand often visits the temple to fulfill religious vows. His friend João Garcia mailed him statues of the saint, and Felipão tried to introduce the cult in Portugal, mentioning his devotion in interviews and visiting churches on his travels through the country. He conquered Portugal from the countryside to the capital.
Initially received with criticisms, he took the country to the final of the 2004 Eurocopa, which was lost to Greece in a dramatic match. Even so, he managed to make Portugal start rooting for Portugal again, played a protective role for the rookie Cristiano Ronaldo, and lifted the national team out of mediocrity. The game against Holland for the final 16 of the 2006 World Cup went down in history: it was a massacre, including twelve yellow cards and four red cards. Portugal won, 1-0, and Felipão dubbed it “a typical Libertadores game, like the warlike matches I’m used to playing against Argentine teams.”
He still hadn’t had a chance to coach a large European club. In July 2008, he was introduced as Chelsea’s coach. He was nicknamed “Big Phil” in England, but his charisma did not find the reciprocity it had encountered in other countries. Despite some good results, at least numerically, he lost important derbies and didn’t get on well with the players. One of the versions of his premature firing in February 2009 was a mutiny on the part of the players, led by the star Drogba – benched after an injury. Whether this is true or not, the fact is that the “Felipão family” didn’t work on English turf. In his next job, training Bunyodkor in Uzbekistan, he was received in great style by the fans and set off a series of 23 consecutive victories that guaranteed the cup in the 2009 Uzbek League.
In July 2010, Felipão signed on to return to Palmeiras. He managed to take the limited group of players to an undefeated victory in the 2012 Copa do Brasil. I watched that semifinal between Grêmio and Palmeiras in the Estádio Olímpico, in Porto Alegre, and I saw Felipão’s Palmeiras cram in two goals at the end of the second half. Felipão gesticulated, shouted, and swiveled his body around in that typical way just a few dozen meters from where I was standing. His strategy for that match was perfect. He seemed to have foreseen that Kléber, “the Gladiator,” would be returning from an injury. He set up an infernal defensive system. I was enraged by the defeat, but I couldn’t keep from admiring Luiz Felipe Scolari, himself a rabid Grêmio fan, who had forced his favorite team to kneel in their own stadium, in the same arena where he had taken the club to so many glories. A fellow Grêmio fan sent me a text at the end of the match: “FELIPÃO = GOD.” On the eve of the game, after a lunch with the family, Felipão had called his friend João Garcia’s grandson over to the table and showed the little Internacional fan how he would defeat Grêmio the next day. He illustrated his tactics with soda cans and announced that he would win 2-0, just as it would happen. Garcia told me this story in order to argue that Scolari is not simply a motivator, but also possessed of keen tactical vision.
The rest of Palmeiras’ campaign that year, in the Campeonato Brasileiro, was dismal. Felipão could make the team play at their limits during a short competition like the Copa do Brasil, but he couldn’t keep players’ performance up over the course of a round-robin tourney. Marcelo Lima says that Scolari asked to step down because he believed that the team needed another coach in order to shake things up. If he stayed, Palmeiras would fall again. Even so, many people were left with the impression that Felipão abandoned ship as soon as the storm got going. It’s not often that one leaves a team on the road to relegation and is awarded the job of coaching the national team in the host country.
According to Juca Kfouri, Felipão spoke three times with the president of the CBF, José Maria Marin, while he was still at Palmeiras. His return to the Seleção was apparently on track back then. In this version, Koff only didn’t fire Luxemburgo and bring Felipão to Grêmio because he already had some sort of commitment to the CBF at that point. Felipão and Marin deny this. But Kfouri is convinced that Scolari dreamed of closing out his career by coaching the Brazilian national team again. “He told me that once, and I remembered it. Now he’s playing crazy and denying it, saying that he dreamed of training any old team in the World Cup in Brazil. But it was his dream.”
Luiz Felipe Scolari has gotten on well with the press lately, at least in comparison with the past. He got big laughs from journalists in press conferences during the Confederations Cup. He avoids saying what he thinks, but doesn’t shrink when it comes to using his own image commercially. Felipão has been starring in a series of ad campaigns, receiving around a million reais per product. In one channel-surfing session in March, I ran into him in television commercials for cell operator Vivo, the soft drink Guaraná Antárctica, and BIG supermarkets, this last one alongside his wife. At another point he also appeared in a commercial for car manufacturer Peugeot, calling clients in to the dealership (“You’re on the team!”). Nobody will confirm what Scolari’s CBF salary is. A recent ranking on the Spanish website FútbolFinanzas says that he makes around 4.5 million euros a year. The fortune he has squirreled away since his first jobs in the Middle East is principally invested in real estate and managed by his brother-in-law, engineer Marco Pasinato. It’s common to hear appositives such as “the owner of Canoas” when people are asked about Felipão’s holdings. His investments are concentrated in the city of Canoas, in the mountains of Rio Grande do Sul, in the state of Santa Catarina, and in Portugal.
On April 6th, the Folha de S. Paulo published a story entitled “Filipinho paz e amor” [Little Phil, Peace and Love], emphasizing the sweet, Christian tone of the coach’s current bedside book, The Servant: A Simple Story about the True Essence of Leadership, by James C. Hunter. During the 2002 World Cup, Felipão was armed with Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, which was a source of inspiration for his players. On April 7th, meanwhile, Folha’s site used declarations made at a conference in Portugal to announce that the coach planned on letting the players do as they pleased before games, even to have sex. “Normal sex, sure. […] But there are people who do acrobatics. Now, that’s not allowed,” he joked. This softening comes hand in hand with an increasing emphasis on the psychological profiles of his players in the definition of the national team’s lineup and technical schematics. A New York Times piece from December of last year showed that Felipão makes use of the questionnaires and advice from psychologist Regina Brandão in order to make important decisions that go from the lineup of the team to the choice of captain.
The Seleção’s performance at the Confederations Cup made Felipão a sort of consensus. At first his return to the national team alongside Carlos Alberto Parreira was a source of consternation. How could two styles that were so different work together? But, for the first time in years, the national team showed a unity and consistency that looked like a team, not an occasional aggregation of players who were more concerned with other things. The coach also changed his tone considerably. In October of last year, he declared at an event in Bento Gonçalves that “Brazil will win the Cup.” To the New York Times, he said that “if we can, we will play the beautiful game and win. If not, we will just win.” His style was never one of guaranteeing victory – on the contrary. But that seems to be a part of the strategy to mobilize players and fans for the challenge of the World Cup. In calling the spotlights and the responsibility upon himself, he relieves a bit of the pressure on the players, especially the team’s brightest star, Neymar. João Garcia, his confidant, asked him about this “paradigm shift.” Felipão responded that he trusts the team. But Garcia suspects that “he really trusts the coaching staff. Parreira is a buffer for Felipão.”
Even retired player Tostão, a columnist and one of Felipão’s most consistent critics, recognizes the favoritism around the Brazilian national team in 2014. His latest objections have focused on this exaggerated optimism and “magical thinking.” In a column published in the Folha de S. Paulo on February 16th, he wrote: “With the evident individual and collective growth of the Seleção, which goes beyond the conquest of the Confederations Cup, the evaluation of the team, which was excessively negative – as if Brazil were a thousand years behind, tactically, and had only a single great player, Neymar – shifted to being exaggeratedly positive, as if the Seleção were the only favorite in the World Cup and had countless standouts. Neither one nor the other.” Later on: “One of Felipão’s merits was giving the national team a tactical system and strategy very similar to those of the best teams in the world. That is only possible because almost all are playing in Europe, alongside many stars, and being led by great coaches, like Mourinho at Chelsea: a club with four Brazilians on the national team.”
Although it contains some truths, this analysis seems to only grudgingly concede Felipão some merit, just as was the case for much of the press outside Rio Grande do Sul in 2002, after the fifth World Cup was conquered. In an article published in the 77th edition of piauí, from February 2013, entitled “Obrigação e retrocesso” [Obligation and Regression], Tostão says: “The great question is if the Brazilian fans will be satisfied by victory alone, or if they will also demand a football that enchants them, as it did in years past. Everything from now on, increasingly so, will rotate around the ‘obligation to win.’ […] It would be better if an effective modernization of the style of play and in the general organization of Brazilian football were underway, independent of the nation’s results in the World Cup.”
In Felipão’s defense, some might say that, without the tactical mastery and experiences such as his time with the Portuguese national team and Chelsea, he would not be able to catalyze the potential of the players he has at his disposition. Friendlies like the match in March, against South Africa, point towards the preservation of the formula sketched out in the Confederations Cup. But nobody, of course, can say with any certainty that the magic will hold out over all the stages of the coming World Cup.
José Miguel Wisnik was another thinker of football who saw Felipão’s return as a regression, and later changed his mind. “In 2002, football was evened out, landslide victories were a thing of the past, and small differences and individual talents defined the results,” he told me in a conversation at his house, in São Paulo. “With a worldwide ‘Barcelonization,’ individual talent isn’t enough anymore if the team isn’t tight-knit. After 2002, Brazil was slow to catch up, with a style of play that seemed a specter of itself.” By injecting his team of Europeanized players with this tight cohesion and the spirit of grit and will that has always guided his vision of football, Felipão may conquer, instead of a regression, a synthesis that, if it can’t be called artistic or avant-garde, is at least contemporary and competitive. But, of course, as Captain Froner would say, “We’ll see.”
In terms of the political and social context surrounding the World Cup in Brazil, Felipão occupies a curious position. His public declarations tend to be clumsy, especially when the topic is politics. His praise of Chilean dictator Pinochet was particularly notorious. In an interview on Roda Viva in 2005, when questioned about the matter, Felipão missed his chance to stay quiet or correct his previous blunder, and responded with a naïveté so impressive that it was almost touching: “[I don’t regret it] because some people took it in another direction. […] To get to a good point, the point when Chile grew, something had to be done, and that was him. He started it, he did the good parts, he did the bad parts, and I only talk about the good parts, not the bad parts.” Then he concluded: “Who knows, maybe that’s just my alienation.”
Recently, as he watched the parade of the triumphant samba schools in Rio’s Carnaval from Brahma’s VIP box, Felipão spoke out about the racist incidents ravaging football in Brazil. “They’re highlighting this nonsense. We shouldn’t even be debating that. There’s no use punishing, the solution is to ignore it. You all [the press] can’t give them attention and go on talking about these people. There’s no solution, these idiots will never learn.” His blind eye towards the “bad parts” and the “leave it be” attitude in said incidents reflect a “man-of-the-people conservatism” that abounds in many areas. On one hand, Felipão is what João Garcia refers somewhat jocosely to as a “rightist socialist,” who can defend property and the people’s wellbeing with equal ardor, independent of any regime or political party, ignoring the complexities and various contradictions that such a position brings. Juca Kfouri puts it this way: “He’s the uncle who has two caipirinhas at a family lunch and starts making dirty jokes in front of his nieces, who’s conservative and reactionary, who might praise Pinochet but could praise Fidel Castro, too, because above all he wants order. He wants things to have limits.”
From the point of view of the popular discontent that set off the protests of June 2013, whose targets included corruption, the abuses of the state’s forces of repression and the privatization of public space, such positions are problematic. Even so, Felipão’s lauded sensibility made an appearance at a critical moment in the protests. In an official FIFA press conference in Fortaleza, on June 18th, 2013, in the second round of the Confederations Cup, he declared to reporters: “The national team belongs to the people. We are part of the people.” He didn’t go so far as to support the protests, but did say that they were something common and normal under a democracy. Players Daniel Alves, Dante, and David Luiz said that they supported the protests. In the match against Mexico on the next day, some of the fans managed to sneak around FIFA prohibitions and bring protest signs into the Estádio Castelão. Around 50,000 fans sung the national anthem in full, ignoring the 90-second limit stipulated by protocol. In the streets, protests slid into even more violence between protesters and police. On the field, the Seleção defeated Mexico 2-0, driven on by fans’ peaceful demonstration.
Although FIFA, the stadiums, and the World Cup are the protests’ symbolic targets, Brazilians’ historical relationship with football introduces ambiguities. “In 1970, when I was studying at USP, my classmates were horrified when I rooted for the Seleção, they said that football was the opium of the masses, that sort of thing,” Kfouri recalls. “During the Confederations Cup, some said that the fans in the stadiums were the politically alienated part of Brazil, the part that wasn’t on the streets. I see it differently. The audience there was a complement to the protests. They had the money to buy a ticket, they went into the stadium, but in a way they echoed the streets, in there, when they sang the national anthem a cappella.”
Wisnik has a similar opinion: “Before the Confederations Cup, the country was up and the Seleção was down. Then things flipped. The national anthem has great symbolic value, inside and outside the stadiums. People often say that Brazilians’ vocation for the ludic doesn’t lead to political protest, but it’s quite the opposite. The protests only reached the scale that they did because of football – which, even when denied, has enormous importance in potentializing social energy. The Cup became an allegory for the incompetence of the state, the inability to administrate, corruption. Felipão’s antennae will certainly pick up on that.”
We’ll see; we’ll see.
The city of Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul, is split along an unflinching rivalry between colorados (the red-jerseyed fans of Internacional) and tricolores (the blue-jerseyed supporters of Grêmio).
The company sponsored São Paulo team Palmeiras from 1992 to 2000, feeding an increasingly acrimonious rivalry between Grêmio and its northern adversary.
Daniel Galera é escritor e vive em Porto Alegre. Seu romance mais recente é Barba Ensopada de Sangue, da Companhia das Letras.