We Need To Talk About ‘Big Phil’

In ABBA’s 1977 hit single, Knowing Me, Knowing You, the Swedish group put it bluntly: “Breaking up is never easy.” In Luiz Felipe Scolari’s case, this was, at least first time around with Palmeiras, unquestionably the case. Second time around though, the breakup may be a little less impassioned. Public infighting with board members and players alike and an underwhelming Campeonato Brasileiro Série A campaign have turned Felipão’s dream return into somewhat of a nightmare.

After guiding A Seleção to victory in the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final, the Passo Fundo-born man decided to pursue his managerial career outside of Brazil – albeit with mixed success. Hailed in Portugal for guiding the National Team to semi-finals in both the 2004 UEFA European Championships and the 2006 FIFA World Cup, he endured a less than impressive spell in the Barclays Premier League with Chelsea. However, in June of last year, Palmeiras offered their former coach an escape route from his 8-year exile. For Scolari, the chance to return to the club with whom he enjoyed unprecedented success, the highlight of which was winning the club’s maiden Copa Libertadores in 1999, was an offer that he simply couldn’t refuse. The question was: Could Felipão repeat, even emulate, the success of 10 years ago?

Expectations at Verdão were, to put it mildly, high. However, reality soon kicked in – the times had changed since Scolari’s first spell in charge of the São Paulo-based club. Back then, football and the boardroom at the Estádio Palestra Itália very much remained as separate entities. Fast-forward in time though, and the aforementioned spheres are now almost inseparable. Indeed, the man known for his histrionics on the touchline has had his fair share of personal battles with Palmeiras’ vice-president Roberto Frizzo. Yet, the most recent decision by President Arnaldo Tirone to appoint a Director of Football, César Sampaio, a key member of the Brazilian National Team at the 1998 FIFA World Cup Finals, has been viewed as a significant shift in power in Scolari’s favour, namely, it will reduce the board’s influence in footballing matters.

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Similar frictions have emerged between both manager and personnel. After the squad player João Vítor was attacked by a section of the club’s own fans last month, former club captain Kléber publicly clashed with the club directors and Scolari himself over the way the affair was handled. Felipão’s decision to permanently exclude the star striker from all first-team action opened up yet more divisions within the dressing room. Indeed, the breakdown in relations has permeated through to the heartbeat of the club, namely its loyal supporters. Following the team’s disappointing 1-1 draw away to Avaí in September, albeit playing most of the second-half with only nine-men, he was involved in an angry exchange with supporters who jeered the players. And yet amidst all the turbulence, Scolari can take some positives from his job at Palmeiras.

Up until the 21st round of matches in the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, Verdão occupied a lofty sixth place in the league – a mere seven points off the current leaders Corinthians. And by the time the 30th round of matches came around, they boasted the tightest defensive backline in the whole league. However, lady luck also hasn’t smiled on Scolari. He’s been without two of his most important players for the majority of the campaign, namely the mercurial Chilean playmaker Jorge Valdívia and the aforementioned Kléber. Nonetheless, with frailties recently exposed at the back, strikers unable to convert numerous chances provided to them and with just one win in their last nine matches, Palmeiras have dramatically slipped from unexpected title-challengers to currently occupying 13th place in the league – just seven points above the relegation zone.

Whilst relegation from the Campeonato Brasileiro Série A would seem unthinkable for a club of the size and stature of Palmeiras, with just under a month to go until the domestic league reaches its conclusion, the club’s remaining fixtures are far from plain sailing. The most winnable fixture out of a tough looking bunch of games, which include a tricky meeting with Juninho Pernambucano’s title-challenging Vasco da Gama, a local derby against city rivals São Paulo and a final day clash away to current league leaders Corinthians, would appear to be against fellow strugglers Bahia – however even that isn’t a given. Ironically though, wherever his team does eventually end up finishing this season, Scolari himself will certainly not be short of job offers both from within and outside of Brazil.

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Despite criticism regarding his authoritarian style of management along with Palmeiras’ failed campaign in this year’s Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, Scolari’s stock has not fallen significantly. And whilst he has stated that he intends to see out his contract, which runs out at the end of 2012, with his current employers before thinking about the future, speculation linking the manager with a move away from Verdão continues to mount. He has already received offers from abroad in the form of BeÅŸiktaÅŸ, FC Porto and clubs in the Middle East, to name a few. Nearer to home, São Paulo have publicly expressed a desire to bring Scolari to the other side of the city. Whilst an intriguing return to the Brazilian National Team set-up remains a possibility, given the pressure on current Head Coach Mano Menezes.

With 28 years of managerial experience under his belt, half of those spent outside of his homeland, the Gene Hackman and Don Corleone look-alike will undoubtedly think long and hard about his next managerial move. Whichever path Scolari does decide to follow, be it in the short or long-term, one thing is for sure: ‘Big Phil’ will not be leaving the world of football behind quietly or in a hurry.

Twitter: @aleksklosok