At Chelsea, 'Big Phil' is confronted with his toughest challenge so far
Luiz Felipe Scolari is finding it to be tough going as the head coach of Chelsea
Scolari won the '02 World Cup as Brazil's coach, enjoyed success with Portugal
'Big Phil' needed time to adjust to those jobs; EPL culture is even more different
Towards the end of last week -- before Chelsea's epic comeback against Stoke -- I was on a London radio station where one of the hosts has been watching the club for more than 50 years.
Did he like Luiz Felipe Scolari? No. did he want him out? Yes. He had seen no evidence of coaching ability, and thought the fact Scolari had won the 2002 World Cup with Brazil proved nothing, since with the quality of the players available, anyone could do it.
This is the line Brazilian coaches hate to hear. If the national team wins the World Cup, the credit goes to the players. If it loses, the coach gets the blame. It has always been this way.
And it's a little bit harsh. In a low-scoring game like soccer, having the best players doesn't guarantee victory. A balance between attack and defense is needed, and Brazilian coaches have played an important role in finding it.
Forget all the lazy clichés about "samba soccer" and a mentality that a team is happy to concede four goals as long as it can score five. Check the World Cup records of Brazil and Germany: You'll find the key difference is the fact that Brazil has conceded fewer goals. Brazil was the pioneer of the modern back four, which it unleashed at the 1958 World Cup, the first time Brazil won the trophy, by not conceding a goal until the semifinals.
In recent years, coaches have taken on greater prominence in domestic Brazilian soccer. With all the stars in Europe, what tips the balance these days is less individual brilliance and more collective organization.
The talent drain to Europe has produced a bizarre change in Brazilian soccer. The game has always been seen as a metaphor for the quick feet and quicker mind the poor kid needs to survive. At difficult moments, he improvises a solution.
These days, the players capable of doing that are on the other side of the Atlantic. So the great improviser, forced to come up with something when times are hard, becomes the coach.
Scolari gave a good example of this during his spell in charge of Portugal. During a tough game at the 2004 European Championship, he shocked his opponent, and many European coaches, by moving playmaker Deco to right back.
For some time now, "Big Phil" has been showing people there's more to him than meets the eye. When he made his name with Grêmio in the mid-1990s, it was thought that his teams could only play one way: a pragmatic 4-4-2 system with a bombardment of crosses for a target-man striker, effective rather than easy on the eye. The model with Palmeiras was similar, but left-footed playmaker Alex (now at Fenerbahçe in Turkey) introduced some more artistry.
It was the Brazil side of '02 that really showed how versatile Scolari could be. He had never been a fan of the three center-back system, but now he employed it with a variation that was ahead of its time: a floating third center back, Edmílson, who would push up to midfield when the situation demanded. Up front, he went with a trident -- Ronaldo backed up with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho -- and he got them all to fire together.
Then he crossed the Atlantic and managed to take Portugal as far as it had ever been. He had demonstrated that, if not in another language, he could work in a different culture -- and had every right to consider himself worthy of a job with a top European club.
Many Brazilian coaches are fervently rooting for him to make a success of this opportunity with Chelsea -- they hope it will open doors for them. And why not? They have the same tactical and technical background, and have been tested by working with clubs that often sell their best players in the middle of the season.
But there's also something they lack -- and perhaps Scolari's early problems at Chelsea shed some light on what that might be. More than anything, Big Phil is known as a creator of groups -- Brazil's '02 World Cup squad was referred to as "the Scolari family." He's a master of getting people to pull in the same direction. But now he has to do it in a second language, and -- and this is the key point -- with a bunch of players drawn from all over the place.