Big Phil is back in Brazil. After two and a half years exiled in China, Luiz Felipe Scolari, the manager who won the World Cup in 2002 and led the Selecao to a 7-1 drubbing at the hands of Germany in 2014, is back in his homeland, having taken the reins at Palmeiras.
It is a bold move for both the club and the man himself, as the ex-Chelsea boss looks to rebuild a reputation that was severely damaged by that home World Cup catastrophe.
The mission now is clear, he must repeat the historic feat he managed during his first spell as manager of the Sao Paulo-based side and win the Copa Libertadores, South America’s Champions League.
Palmeiras is an institution Scolari knows well, having previously racked up 408 games as manager over two spells. Only the legendary Oswaldo Brandao, who coached the team on five occasions between 1945 and 1980, has had more matches at the helm.
During Felipao’s first stint in charge, from 1997-2000, he led Palmeiras to the Copa do Brasil, Copa Mercosul and Torneio Rio-Sao Paulo, as well as the aforementioned Libertadores, which was the club’s long-awaited first continental crown.
His second passage as manager lasted for two years from 2010 and he once again won the Copa do Brasil in July 2012. Palmeiras, however, were relegated at the end of the same year, Felipao having left the club by mutual consent just a few months earlier with his team 19th in the league.
This time around, though, there are a lot more resources at his disposal. Palmeiras have one of the strongest squads in South America and are bookies’ favourites to win the continent’s most prestigious competition for a second time.
They have recently built a new stadium and a training ground with state-of-the-art facilities, which during his unveiling Scolari said had only been matched at Chelsea in his experience as a manager. If he wanted a chance to restore his reputation, they do not come much better than this.
Having said that, things are rarely so straightforward, especially when it comes to Brazilian football.
Felipao is the tenth Palmeiras manager in the last four years, so it will be difficult to impose another new style on a group of players who have been subject to a huge range of differing tactical ideas in the last 36 months.
While fans have generally welcomed his return, he's also generated excessive expectations - the downfall of many of his predecessors at the club. The group of players – South America’s most expensive – is under intense pressure to win every single competition, a burden that is only exacerbated in the Libertadores.
There are also doubts swirling around in the media about his suitability for the role. At 69, there is a worry that his ideas about the game are outdated.
Brazilian clubs had started the year by appointing a new batch of younger, more progressive managers, overlooking the old names that had been taking charge of the same clubs, seemingly on rotation, for so many years. Felipao’s appointment, therefore, is seen as a backwards step.
Tostao, the superlative striker from the 1970 World Cup team and now an equally brilliant newspaper columnist, wrote that, “Contracting Felipao, in the current situation, is regressive, the consequence of a lack of planning, of affective memory and of the illusion that Palmeiras possess a team of superstars that only need a powerful manager, emotive and motivating, to make the players run more and play better.”
Journalist Martin Fernandez meanwhile, writing in O Globo, referred to the appointment as “a coin tossed in the air”, owing to the uncertainty surrounding it.
Felipao’s last two jobs in Brazil, with Palmeiras from 2010-2012 and with Gremio for the 10 months following the 2014 World Cup, were not complete failures but they were not rip-roaring successes either.
As mentioned, he won the Copa do Brasil with Palmeiras but then took them to the brink of relegation. With Gremio, he managed a seventh-place finish in the league and a runners-up spot in the state Championship before leaving to take charge of Guangzhou Evergrande.
During his time with Gremio, the club’s directors judged that he was still feeling the after-effects of the 7-1 and was not, perhaps, working to the best of his capabilities.
Paulo Vinicius Coelho, a columnist for the Folha de SP newspaper has also raised questions about how his notoriously enthusiastic motivational methods will go down with the new social media generation of players.
To be successful in today’s game, Coelho wrote, a coach must know how “to speak the language of rich footballers who only get off WhatsApp when it is time to kick the ball.”
The Winning Feeling
Scolari’s spell in the Chinese Super League, however, away from the intense spotlight of the Brazilian media, may have been just what he needed to recharge his batteries and come back strong to rebuild his reputation at home.
While there, he at least proved that he has not lost his winning touch. Big Phil’s Evergrande side stormed to three consecutive Chinese titles, as well as the 2015 Asian Champions League and the 2016 Chinese Cup.
Indeed, it is unjust that the words ‘Felipao’ or ‘Scolari’ are almost universally followed by the phrase ‘manager of the 7-1’. He is a serial winner who has taken almost every trophy on offer in South America and has reached the World Cup semi-final on three separate occasions with two different countries, once taking the title.
Even Tostao, critical of the process which saw him appointed, conceded that “Felipao also has his merits” and that a successful return to his old club is a possibility.
The Libertadores knock-out rounds start this week, with Palmeiras travelling to Paraguay to take on Cerro Poteno on Thursday night. After a drab 0-0 draw in Sunday’s league match, this will be the first real test of Felipao’s mettle as a manager in 2018.
If he is to kick the 7-1 into the annals of history once and for all, he knows there is only one acceptable result.