Renowned as a fighter, it’s time for Big Phil to box clever

In Brazil he is Felipão; the world knows him as Big Phil.

Renowned as a fighter, it’s time for Big Phil to box clever

But when Luis Felipe Scolari was in charge of Portugal, he became known as Sargento, or sargento de ferro — the iron sergeant as portrayed by Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge.

Forget the avuncular, almost cuddly, image he sometimes projects. Scolari is a slugger at heart and always will be. Literally.

Serbia defender Ivica Dragutinovic was leaving the pitch in Lisbon after a fractious European qualifier back in 2007 when a brief exchange with Scolari ended with the Portugal manager throwing a left jab which finished just an inch short of its target. Three years ago, during Scolari’s troubled second spell at Sao Paulo club Palmeiras, an unwise photographer accosted him as he left the dressing room after a half-time team talk and got a slap along with his snap.

He’s never had much time for journalists, most recently suggesting they could “go to hell” if they disliked what he was doing. He never took prisoners as a player either, but to be fair he can take a hit as well as give one. At Palmeiras he was struck by a mobile phone thrown by an infuriated opposition fan while giving a post-match interview. He hardly flinched.

“When a club loses, feelings are stirred up,” he said. “I don’t want to discuss the subject any further and we won’t be making any formal protest.”

Today’s titanic semi-final against a steely German side in Belo Horizonte is made for him. Losing his two most influential players, Neymar and Thiago Silva, is a huge blow, but he will also relish an added challenge.

Some people remember Scolari’s World Cup triumph 12 years ago almost as if it were a foregone conclusion. It was a mostly poor tournament, Brazil had an easy draw, other contenders were fortuitously knocked out, and they had a glittering strike force of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and the young Ronaldinho.

But the squad had been in disarray a year earlier. At one point there were doubts about whether Brazil would even qualify. It was the sergeant who sorted them out. He had the nerve to drop Romario. And he chose a formation that worked: combining three no-nonsense centre backs with raiding full-backs and relying on the individual brilliance of the attacking trio rather than the flowing football that was once the Brazilian trademark.

Scolari’s greatest success as a club manager came during his three years at Grêmio, where he built on other Brazilian qualities. It is a myth that Brazil only play pretty football. They always had combative players prepared to kick the other team and scuffle their way to victory — just as they did against Colombia.

With Portugal, he imposed his will by being prepared to drop stars, including Luis Figo, and keeping a consistent squad together, even when they were underperforming for their clubs. The club-based rivalry within the squad was broken down.

But there was a weakness in his approach, and it was cruelly exposed in Lisbon in 2004 when Portugal lost to Greece in the European final. Scolari seemed to have no alternative tactical plan to unlock Otto Rehhagel’s defence. Heart and commitment plus individual brilliance were not enough.

Scolari has never been adept at switching tactics. In José Mourinho’s words, he thinks “tactical developments are for clubs while a national team is fundamentally about heart, objectives, belief and empathy”.

That combination has often served him well. But against Germany, and shorn of two big players, some tactical changes are required. They probably will involve a central role for Oscar in attack. They might involve pushing Dani Alves forward in front of Maicon on the right. Luis Gustavo can play as a link-man, not just as a stopper, and he and Dante know all about the Bayern contingent in the German side.

Brazil are unused to being the underdog. It might help them. The support will be incandescent. But aggression and adrenalin will not be enough. The iron sergeant will need to be a good general as well as a brave leader.

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