Jim White

Here comes the Big Man

Jim White

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It is a quirk of fate that had the good folk who run the FA been a little sharper on their feet, a little shrewder in their manoeuvrings, a little more aware of the niceties of international football recruitment, Luiz Felipe Scolari would not have been revealed as the new manager of Chelsea this week. He would instead have been in charge of England, looking forward to leading his team to the latter stages of Euro 2008, perhaps even to winning it.

England's loss is Chelsea's gain. The London club have succeeded where the national association so manifestly failed: they have prised a real contender away from his job with Portugal. Had the FA not been so crass, so ham-fisted, so arrogant in their approaches to the Brazilian back in 2006, they would almost certainly not be in the position they are now in, as the embarrassed observers of Europe's biggest football party, watching from a distance. It is inconceivable that a coach of Scolari's distinction would have failed to lead England out of an eminently winnable qualifying group had he decided to take up the offer to replace Sven Goran Eriksson. Instead, the FA blundered in their recruitment, making it far too public and putting the coach in an intolerably tricky position ahead of the World Cup 2006. Had he accepted their offer while still managing Portugal, how would he have reconciled things when his adopted country met England in the quarter finals? Instead the FA were able to repent at leisure for their clumsy efforts to lure him.

So how have Chelsea succeeded where England failed? Well, the reported £5.5million annual remuneration might have something to do with it: despite his extensive success in the game, he has never earned anything close to that sort of money. Plus, Scolari is an ambitious man. Unlike Lee McQueen, the winner of the Apprentice, Big Phil has no need to embroider his CV. He won the Copa Libertadores twice with different clubs, he has won the World Cup with Brazil, he has turned Portugal from a team who never quite lived up to their potential into genuine contenders. Yet he has never managed a club in Europe. And that, increasingly, is the place where the real measurement of a manager can be made.

It is there that Chelsea are gambling. If Mark Hughes was deemed by the club's owner Roman Abramovich to be lacking in relevant experience, where does that leave Scolari? He has never competed in the Uefa Cup never mind the Champions League. He has never pitched his wits against Real Madrid, Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Liverpool or Manchester United. Units whose cohesion is forged across 60 games a season rather than half a dozen, these are very different beasts to France, Italy, Germany and Croatia. Working with players on a daily basis is not something he has done this century. And doing so in a language in which he is not yet proficient will be a steep challenge.

That said, Scolari clearly knows what he is doing. His Portugal are a bright, attractive, but above all hard-to-beat operation. As a template for what the owner wants his Chelsea side to be, it is not a bad one. His touchline exuberance reveals he is a passionate man, whose natural demeanour will communicate well with the fans, even if they do not speak the same language. And, as he proved by once flattening a journalist in Brazil whose line of questioning he deemed inappropriate, he is not someone easily intimidated by the press. This is a manager, in short, who will hugely add to the fun and games of the English Premier League. And he has the credentials to succeed.

Whether he is given the time to apply his considerable talents to the job is, with Chelsea, always the big question. You imagine the compensation clauses in his contract have been thoroughly picked over by his legal advisers. And when it does come to an end at Stamford Bridge - as every recent precedent insists it soon will - you never know, England might still be there for him, just a mere missed tournament too late.

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