Scolari wants to create the impression that they are part of a tight, closed
family with him acting as its avuncular, controlling, occasionally stern
patriarch, ready to shoulder the pressure and disperse his players’ fears
and darkest thoughts.
And cuff a few ears if need be and also come out swinging on their behalf –
quite literally when he was coach of Portugal and, seven years ago, aimed a
punch on the head of Serbia’s Ivica Dragutinović.
It is often why Scolari, during his media briefings, glosses over questions of
tactics and team selection and instead indulges in far grander statements.
“To all the Brazilians I want to tell you the time has arrived and we are
going to go together,” Scolari said before Brazil’s first game in Sao Paulo.
“This is our World Cup.”
His words were appropriate: this is Brazil’s World Cup. But the nation
knew what it was getting when they turned to Felipao to replace Mano
Menezes, a more thoughtful but less populist coach. Scolari was expected get
his squad of players over the line or as near as possible to it, and by any
There was a danger, namely that the emotion would become too much and that it
would sap the players more than spur them. Sure enough, there have been
incidents – not least in that opening game against Croatia and during the
intense last-16 tie against Chile – when it seemed to overpower the
Brazilian team rather than drive them.
Scolari has reacted to that as well and has done so in a more cynical,
predictable fashion. “We’re being too nice and too cordial with our
opponents,” he said in the aftermath of the rollercoaster ride that was that
afternoon in Belo Horizonte last Saturday against Chile.
Sure enough, this self-confessed brawler and scrapper realised the team were
over-reliant on Neymar and changed tack with an even more pragmatic,
aggressive approach against Colombia. Aided by some compliant refereeing, in
which the escalating violence went largely unpunished, James Rodriguez, the
outstanding performer at this World Cup, was targeted to such an extent that
he was reduced to tears at the final whistle.
Not that Brazil were brutal. They were functional. They played the conditions
and the occasion and the referee but in a World Cup devoid of the cynicism
of previous tournaments they were not thuggish. It was hardly Holland
against Spain in the final four years ago.
Not that Scolari will care. He will simply shrug and exasperatingly berate
those who question him. After all, before the Colombia match, he had told
his critics to “go to hell” and he had hardly made a pact with the devil. He
had simply boiled down his team’s approach to basics. Their last three goals
have all come from set pieces. It has become increasingly uncomplicated as
the stakes have been raised.
But then survey this Brazil squad. It is packed with functional players –
midfielders such as Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho, Hernanes and, to a lesser
extent, Fernandinho. The choice of striker is between Fred and Jo, which
says it all.
But it is Scolari’s squad. There are players who have been overlooked and it
will not just be Liverpool supporters wondering, again, how Philippe
Coutinho does not even warrant a place in the 23 while Chelsea fans will be
surprised that Willian has been used so sparingly. He may now get his chance
with Neymar’s injury.
Former Brazil captain Carlos Alberto predicted that Willian’s moment has
arrived but the midfielder is not a prolific goalscorer. In the absence of
Neymar and unless Hulk starts to fire, Brazil will have to keep on grinding
out results if they are to fulfil Scolari’s “seven steps to heaven”. It may
not be a serene ascent if they do.
But even if Brazil do not prevail and do not reach the World Cup final and win
it a week today in Rio de Janeiro there will be no shame. Scolari’s
pragmatism has ensured that will not be the case.