Reinstated at the helm of the Brazilian national team, Luiz Felipe Scolari’s résumé speaks for itself – two Copa Libertadores titles (Grêmio, Palmeiras), one Brazilian championship, three Copas do Brasil and a stellar five-year stint with an overachieving Portugal national team from 2003 to 2008. But the pinnacle of his career is undoubtedly the World Cup crown he claimed with an undefeated Brazil national team in 2002.
Similar to Brazil’s national team though, Felipão (‘Big Phil’) has had a rough time since lifting the 2002 trophy, hitting rock bottom last year when he was deemed the scapegoat for Palmeiras’ Second-Division relegation, and fired as a result.
Nevertheless, with his controversial hiring on the heels of Mano Menezes’s dismissal, the Football Confederation is clearly banking on the synergy of Big Phil and Brazil to help bring the country back to football prominence when the World Cup crash-lands in Brazil in 2014.
You’ll have to forgive Brazilians for their lack of enthusiasm, however. With five World Cups under their belt – the most by any national team – the country’s passionate fans have short memory spans when it comes to their national pastime. Losing is unacceptable and winning is never enough, with victories commonly followed by critiques over the style of play or lack of panache.
Add to that the fact that the country will be hosting its first World Cup in 64 years, and you begin to understand why anything short of a championship – and a convincingly won one, at that – will be considered a catastrophic failure for Big Phil and Brazilian football.
Critics of the hiring are quick to point out that the 2002 team was in a completely different state than the current squad when Big Phil led it to the title. Coming off a World Cup title in ’94 and a second place finish in ’98, Brazilian football still had plenty of momentum going into the ’02 tournament.
With three past ‘World Player of the Year’ winners – Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho – all in search of their first World Cup trophy in a prominent role, Brazil’s talent was unrivaled on the pitch, and they were the team to beat in South Korea and Japan.
The team that Big Phil has just taken over, though, couldn’t be more different. Up-and-coming stars like Neymar, Oscar and Lucas have yet to stand out in international play, and the home side will face stiff competition from powerhouses such as Germany, the Netherlands – which eliminated Brazil in the 2010 quarterfinals – and the defending World Cup champion, Spain.
But despite all the questions and adversities, a recent poll showed 66 per cent of Brazilian fans believe in Big Phil as the leader who can win them the 2014 World Cup title and avoid history repeating itself. In one of the most shocking upsets in World Cup history, with victory all but certain, the hosting Brazil team stunningly lost the 1950 final to Uruguay in Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium – the same site that will host the final in 2014. A similar fate would be crushing to the country and would surely lead to Felipão’s chastising and firing – not necessarily in that order.
Can he bring Brazil back to glory? Will his legacy remain intact? Only time will tell, but the first hint is right around the corner: Brazil will host and play in the Confederations Cup in June 2013 – an eight-team tournament pitting the world’s best teams against each other. A victory there would go a long way towards silencing his critics, but the country’s collective eyes are on the prize in 2014, and Felipão’s legacy – rightfully or not – will most certainly begin to be defined then.