Luiz Felipe Scolari has been a self-confessed football addict throughout his adult life. And though his time as a no-nonsense defender was unexceptional, his coaching career has been immensely fruitful. Among his long list of accomplishments are winning the Copa Libertadores with two different sides, masterminding Brazil’s 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™ conquest, and guiding Portugal to the UEFA EURO 2004 final and Germany 2006 semis.
FIFA.com caught up with the 61-year-old to discuss his coaching methods, boldest decisions, problems at Chelsea, treatment of players, being back in the Palmeiras hot-seat and desire to lead a team at Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: Mr Scolari, Palmeiras have come on a lot in the four months since you took over. Did you expect to make an impact so quickly?
Luiz Felipe Scolari: My initial idea was to take up a coaching position in January. But when I got offers from Internacional, Flamengo and then Palmeiras, who were going through a rough spell, I thought to myself, ‘if I come back early, then I can get an extra six months to set a team up for 2011 and compete on a level playing field with the rest’. So that’s what I did. I changed a few things around in the first eight or ten games or so, and tried to impose my coaching style. I think the team’s improved over the last month and a half. We are 50 per cent better organised now. When we win it’s usually not by very much, but when we lose there’s never a lot in it either.
You’re known for your ability to adapt systems in line with the resources at your disposal...
Of course. The first thing I have to do is find out what my team’s strengths are and then try to find the best system. At Palmeiras, for example, we don’t have a fast winger, someone who can run on to long balls. That means we have to work hard on playing a possession game. But these days virtually every team gets eight or nine players behind the ball and it’s hard to create chances using technical ability alone.
A lot of people say you’re at your best as a motivator. Would you agree with that?
To an extent. I like players to know and to feel that I’m going to defend them like a father would his children. But I’m still as motivated as I was when I started out 30 years ago. I still feel like a youth-team coach when I go out on the pitch. If I didn’t, then I wouldn’t be able to convey that sense of protection. And it takes time to do that. People who say they can get to know a team within ten days of taking over usually only last three months in the job. They’re just stop-gap coaches. I always stay two or three years with my teams and I adapt and change things around as I get to know them. It’s only after six months that I can say I really know what makes them tick.
Is that why things didn’t work out at Chelsea, because you weren’t given enough time?
The board were worried because we hadn’t beaten any of the big teams. I can understand that but we were only two or three points off the lead. And there were all these questions about the atmosphere, because there were one or two issues with some of the top players. That’s because I took a stance that other coaches wouldn’t have taken. I didn’t have total control. There was this resistance to me, mainly because there were two or three players who tried to impose their authority in a way that wasn’t right. The only thing is that I made them an important part of my plans, and that hadn’t been the case before. I wanted them to get back to their best, not just for Chelsea but for the rest of their careers, and they couldn’t see that. They wanted to play every game and that was one of the problems I had.
Whenever European clubs appoint South American coaches they always have doubts about how they work. My working methods were not the kind you’d usually associate with English football. In South America we do a lot of work on the basics. When we have a whole week of training sessions, for example, we get the first-team players and the reserves together, and that doesn’t really happen over there. That was another of the reasons why I didn’t stay.
I just carried on with my job though, and I know that some of the players improved as a result. Look at [Nicolas] Anelka. He wasn’t getting a game and then all of a sudden he was Chelsea’s top scorer. Ashley Cole couldn’t use his right foot and later he even scored with it, and all [Salomon] Kalou could do was run fast. He couldn’t dribble very well, so we taught him to dribble round poles. Ok, I know they were only poles in the ground but it helped him to start dribbling round opponents, which is something he does now without any problem. And then there’s [Didier] Drogba, who had a serious knee injury but is fine now thanks to the work I did, not just the club’s doctors. I refused to let him play with an injury and I had problems with him because of that. But in 20 or 30 years' time, there’ll be two or three of them who’ll still be walking absolutely fine. They’ll remember me then, for sure. I’ve never spoken about this before and I’m not bringing it up now to justify myself. I understood the reasons and I accepted them. I was sad because I was enjoying the job and I wanted to stay on. I think English football’s great, but I had to go and I did.
Do you think things would have been different had it not been for the language barrier?
It would have been much easier for me, because I would have used normal words as well as the others you often hear on a football pitch. They’re a bit stronger and sometimes players understand that kind of language better than if you talk to them like a friend. Yes, it would have been different. You have to think hard about which words to use and that stops your thought processes. And even then it often comes out wrong. If I’m talking in Portuguese though, I’ll say what I want to say and add a bit more if I feel like it. Then I’m done.
You’ve coached Brazil and Portugal. What’s the key to success when you’re only able to work with players for short periods of time?
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. I never ask for more than 21 days to get a team ready for a competition. A lot of coaches say you need two months before the World Cup, but if you can get players together for 21 days then you’ve got no excuses. That’s more than enough time to get them in peak technical and physical condition.
As an international coach you’ve been able to get the very best out of players, even when they’ve been struggling with their clubs.
Yes, that’s right. Just look at Costinha. He hadn’t been getting a game in Russia and he hadn’t been training either. We knew we had to do something, so we came to an arrangement with Belenenses and got him training for 15 or 20 days before we announced the squad for the 2006 World Cup. I had faith in him. He made the squad and the starting line-up. Here’s another example for you. In 2002 the coaching and medical staff had a specific plan for Ronaldo, and we set a limit on the number of minutes he could play in each game. In the opening match with Turkey we were drawing 1-1 but we’d reached the limit, and so I took him off and sent on Luizao. We had a plan and we had to stick to it. Obviously there are ground rules, but sometimes you can take risks because you’re the coach. Sometimes it can be worth taking them if it involves a player you trust in.
Do you think players can sense the confidence you have in them?
Absolutely. Let me give you another example. When I took on the Brazil job, Rivaldo was coming in for more criticism than anyone. So, the first chance I got – and I took a lot of stick for this – I came out and said that he’d definitely play the next ten games, whether he was in form or not. How did that make him feel? Full of confidence. From a tactical standpoint he was our most important player at the World Cup [in 2002].
You’ve coached teams at two FIFA World Cups and reached the latter stages in both. Will we be seeing you at a third?
My contract with Palmeiras runs out in 2012. After that I think I'll still be able to work with a national team in the qualifiers and then end my career at the 2014 World Cup in my home country. There’s no other competition like the World Cup. That involvement you have with the other teams, the contact with opposing coaches, and the friendships you build up at the seminars and congresses is wonderful. But I’m definitely going to retire from coaching in 2014, whether I’m at the World Cup or not. I’m going to stay in football, maybe as a technical director or general manager, but I don’t want to be involved in the day-to-day, hands-on stuff I’m doing now.