Sunday, March 8, 2009

Adeus, Patrão!

I’m already getting emails from friends in Brazil. They are very disappointed that Luiz Felipe Scolari was fired by Chelsea. There was a lot of hope that Scolari’s success would open the gates for other Brazilian coaches to ply their wares in Europe. So far, when the Brazilian national team wins the World Cup or the Confederations championship, it is seen by a fickle public as one more triumph for their brilliant flair players. My friend Carlinhos put it this way: “When we win, our players take all the credit. When we lose our coaches get blamed.”

Yet strategy and organization are absolutely a key component of Brazil's successes. As in any country, Brazilian coaches have worked hard to perfect a balance between attack and defense. After all, who created the back four? Bela Gutmann may take credit in his memoirs, but he happened to dream it up while coaching in Brazil. Whoever and whenever is less important, however, than the fact of its implementation. The bottom line was that at least one of the wingers needed to drop back and help out in midfield.

Brazil's brilliant 1970 team meant to retain possession forever. When the ball got taken away, however, Utopianism fell by the wayside and Mario Zagallo's boys retreated behind Tostão. 4-5-1 was born. This concept of five players in the middle, running a whirling dervish of a revolving 'diamond,' not only demands flair and adaptability from players, it also requires an innate intelligence and an ability to improvise.

The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. Let the collective competitive World Cup record speak for itself. Germany and Brazil have each played 92 games, but Brazil, surprisingly to some, have conceded far fewer goals. This is why they have won the tournament five times.

Consider this also. The best Brazilian players all tend to have left for Europe by the time they have turned eighteen. Access to the best mature players is a perk Brazilian coaches no longer have access to. Consequently, the scales have tipped. Denied the most exquisite talent, coaches have become much more decisive figures in the domestic leagues. The pluralistic vision of a smart, savvy coach is more important than it's ever been. All those fair-to-middling players, once condemned to careers combating relegation, playing in the more physical second division and early retirement to jobs as coaches, now have hope.

Consider how European teams have counted the cost of this new status quo. In 2005, Sao Paolo beat Liverpool with a display of tar-baby style absorption and quick counterattacking in the World Club Cup Competition. The next season Barcelona took the same treatment from Internacional. The coaches, the peripatetic, Paolo Autori, and the zen-calm Abel Braga, had their players performing in a ruthless, disciplined manner that belies every Brazilian stereotype. Nine men played behind the ball. Passing was short. The tackling was meaty and for keeps. Each team won by a single breakaway goal.

Kudos to these coaches indeed. Yet another problem presents itself here. Brazilians are all for tourists. Yet they don't like gringos playing football in their leagues. In Brazil, Gringo is the unfortunate word of choice for all foreigners. A number of players from Argentina and Paraguay in particular have played in Brazil and are constantly, relentlessly booed. It's not an issue of race, though. Black players like Faustino Asprilla from Colombia have not been welcomed, either. "A Gringo is a gringo is a gringo!" insists Carlinhos. "Foreigners can come here and sleep with our women, but we will not countenance cheeky, arrogant Gringos polluting our beautiful game." Yes, indeed, even superstar players, from neighboring countries, like Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascharano for Corinthians and that nice Jewish mensch from Buenos Aíres, Juan Pablo Sorin of Cruzeiro, are classed as Gringos" and booed.

It's all a bit ironic, especially considering the cultural and ethnic diversity that Scolari had to deal with at Chelsea. Big Phil, as the nasty English press love to call him (Every coach has to have at least one Fleet Street nickname), has always succeeded as a coach because he has a lot of guile and a natural ability to motivate player squads. Sometimes, however, this is not enough. The shortest simplest explanation may be that he had a hard time chatting with such a diverse group of players because, previously, he has always exclusively relied upon his dexterity with the Portuguese language. Still, the amount of time he spent with the club seems incredibly brief, especially considering that all this took place before Scolari got the opportunity to coach before the knockout phase of the European Champions Cup.

What hurt Scolari in particular was his inability to motivate the brilliant, but incredibly sensitive striker Didier Drogba. A number of unnamed players told The Guardian reporter, Barney Ronay, that the last thing they were looking for was a new dad. This father-figure persona did not go down well in London. Felipe in particular, likes to play the grand Brasilenho patrao. Indeed, Dunga, the Brazil National team coach and former longtime team captain, is well known for criticizing the national compulsion with fixing the societal problem of absent fathers.

When Brazil won the World Cup in 2002, Don Felipe was absolutely the undisputed patrao of what was referred to as "Scolari's family". By comparison, in Italy, France, England, Spain and Germany, as Juninho Pernambucano says of his manager at Olympique Lyonnais, Louis Puel, "I love this man because he treats me as a professional."

Scolari also made the mistake of picking out some transfer targets with difficult reputations. It was all bound to upset the higher highers at Chelsea, especially their Russian mobster oligarch owner, Roman Abramovich. Scolari pined for Robinho, the thumb sucker with an affinity for, at best, rough sex, or at worse, rape. Robinho is a fine, flair footballer, but, as they've found to their cost at Santos, Real Madrid and Manchester City, he needs a team of psychiatrists to accompany him wherever he goes. He also lobbied for the alcoholic Adriano, another one with an affinity for violence against women. Juninho Pernambucano was the leader he wanted for the midfield, but the Chief Executive, Abramovich's lick spittle, Peter Kenyon, wanted nothing to do with coughing up 15M in pound notes for a 37-year-old. Kenyon compromised, however, and allowed Scolari to bring in Deco, Jose Bosingwa, Ricardo Quaresma and Mineiro, a plodding 34-year-old Brazilian midfielder recently put out to pasture by Werder Bremen who loves his patrão. Save for the star Portugal right back, Bosingwa, his other purchases have flopped.

This insecure need to use old favorites and compatriots definitely telegraphed the wrong idea to the club's thuggish owner. Still, to be fair, coaches who want to deliberately create cliques to divide and rule the clubhouse are asking for trouble. Scolari seemed, to all intents and purposes, unwilling to embrace a wide, wicked gringo world.

Since being fired and paid off to the tune of, depending on the source, 7, 18 or 21M, Felipe Scolari moans that his Chelsea team was not capable of "thinking Brazilian" enough. This is a bizarre point for Scolari to make considering he was made his name in the mid-90s coaching practical and ruggedly functional winning football teams in Gremio and Palmeiras. Perhaps the problem was that, although he was cosmopolitan in a Brazilian and Portuguese sense, he simply wasn't cosmopolitan enough in a European sense.

Still, Don Felipe's resumé is absolutely fantastic. His seven months at Chelsea may, ultimately, prove fortuitous. The old macho may now be mentally better tooled to coach another team in the Premiership or La Liga. If the brilliant Scolari has learned from his mistakes, he may yet succeed and be the one who opens the door for his colleagues back home to charge through.

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