When it comes to assessing the strongest area of Luiz Felipe Scolari’s coaching repertoire, there is no shortage of experts that point to his work with his players off the pitch. Of course, he would not have been so successful were he unable to get performances on the field too, but that can also partly be traced to the atmosphere Felipão is able to build among his charges at team get-togethers, in training or even travelling to and from games.
Perhaps the finest example of this phenomenon, or at least the most famous, came 11 years ago, as the coach turned A Seleção Brasileira into A Família Scolari (The Scolari Family) on the way to lifting the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. Behind the ideology was having a group of players that were so tightly knit that, regular starter or habitual reserve, everyone was ready and motivated to perform when called upon – doing so for themselves, their team-mates and their coach.
Just three matches at the FIFA Confederations Cup Brazil 2013, albeit three convincing wins, may be too few to judge whether this Verde e Amarelo squad possesses the strong ties that are a Scolari trademark. But, going by the way his substitutes in particular have risen to the challenge so far, the experienced coach’s paternal manner appears to be working.
In each of Brazil’s Group A encounters, they found the net via a player who came off the bench. Front-man Jo notched against both Japan and Mexico after joining the fray late on, while centre-back Dante opened the scoring in the 4-2 win over Italy, having replaced the injured David Luiz after 34 minutes.
Another case in point is the positive attitude of deep-lying midfielder Hernanes who, despite impressing in recent warm-up games against England and France, only started against the Squadra Azzurra because Paulinho was rested. “Felipão has a great knack of leading the squad and making sure everyone feels important,” the Lazio star told FIFA.com. “That’s why everyone’s always ready to come into the team and play well. He creates an atmosphere that keeps us all motivated.”
These words are similar to those of former Middlesbrough fans’ favourite Juninho Paulista, who made five appearances in Brazil’s triumph at Korea/Japan 2002. “In that World Cup, Felipão managed to make all of us, the players and the coaching staff, feel that we were all equally important,” he told FIFA.com back in March.
“From Ronaldo right through to the third-choice keeper, he treated everyone exactly the same. That’s why the squad stuck together. Felipão is really good at building up people’s confidence. He has such a good feel for those things.”
The result of Scolari’s efforts is that, in addition to an enjoyable atmosphere amongst the squad, he can count on players who do not lose their focus when left out of the starting line-up and are always ready to seize their opportunity. Doing exactly that is Jo who, having only made the final squad due to a late injury to Leandro Damiao, has scored twice in just 17 minutes of playing time.
“When we’re on the bench, we’re always saying that when you get brought on it’s not just for a runout, it’s to help secure a result. What matters, like Felipão says, is that the whole squad is always ready,” the former Manchester City and Everton forward, now at Atletico Mineiro, told FIFA.com.
“When you’re on the bench you have to be smart and really get an idea for where people are positioned on the pitch. That way, when you come on, you know which is the best place for every attack. That’s why things are going right.”
Even goalkeeper Julio Cesar, previously a key member of another Seleção ‘family’ – under Dunga at South Africa 2010 – has only good things to say about the vibe with Felipão. “The atmosphere is similar. And we’re managing to reflect the squad’s unity out on the pitch too. Everything’s going really well,” said the player who, along with Daniel Alves, is the only member of that 2010 FIFA World Cup squad involved here at Brazil 2013.
“We’re all able to be happy for each other, whoever gets the chance to play. The result is continuity: the team can change but there’s no dip in the technical performance or the tactical plan.”
So many diverse cases and points of view rule out Scolari’s impact being coincidence, while it is intriguing to look at an interview with the supremo himself, given way back in November 2010. “I like the players to know and to feel that I’m going to defend them like a father would his children,” he said, before outlining how he builds a convivial atmosphere even over short get-together periods.
“I try to bring in a club ethic and make the players understand that when they’re playing for the national team, it’s just like playing for another club for a few days,” he continued. “I never ask for more than 21 days to get a team ready for a competition.”
And as A Seleção prepare for 26 June’s semi-final against Uruguay in Belo Horizonte, the signs point towards Scolari being true to his word. Though it remains early days in his second spell at the Brazil helm, their FIFA Confederations Cup campaign so far suggests that Felipão can indeed turn 23 players into one big – and happy – family.