The brotherly bear-hug was a rare moment when Scolari looked anything other than pensive or downright angry as he patrolled a Stamford Bridge touchline that was once, briefly, his. Just a handful of games into the most high-profile job in international football, Big Phil could be forgiven for feeling slightly uneasy; at Chelsea only a late, late goal from Fred prevented a second defeat in three for the new man.
Scolari's second spell in charge of the Selecao is still at an embryonic stage but already the manager feels compelled to present Brazil’s fans with a convincing narrative of progress, and reassure them that preparations for the World Cup, which the country will of course host, are firmly on track. In lieu of results, Scolari has taken to appealing to the faith of a nation.
In a packed Stamford Bridge press room, he said last night: “I believe that we have the support and trust of the Brazilian fans and all we need to do is to continue to work on this group of players. I believe that for the Confederations Cup [this summer] we will have a strong group - we have to go through the stages [of building the team]. For the Confederations Cup and World Cup the fans can be sure they are going to have a very recognisable group they will be happy with.”
But Brazil is a country that wants near perfection, not just a recognisable group. Five World Cups will endow a country with a certain level of expectation and no nation expects its team to win football matches quite like Brazil. Not with the World Cup coming to South America's biggest and most boisterous country in 2014.
Brazil’s first home tournament since the nation was left traumatised by the ‘Maracanazo’ – Uruguay’s unforeseen triumph against Brazil in the 1950 World Cup final in Rio’s iconic stadium – is a huge, huge deal: 2014 is a date that lies heavy on the national psyche. A scar needs to be healed.
It has made Brazil rather ruthless in pursuit of their goal. So much so in fact that previous incumbent Mano Menezes was disposed of by the CBF despite having won six of his previous eight games - all friendlies of course, given Brazil do not have to qualify.
Menezes – who tried to implement a more progressive style of play as he integrated young talents such as Lucas Moura and, most notably, Neymar – was cast aside in order that Scolari, winner of the World Cup in 2002, could take control of the Selecao and provide a much safer pair of hands. 'Felipao' may well be that, but draws against Italy and Russia and a defeat to England do not represent the most convincing of starts.
Unable to present any great revolution, at least in terms of results, Scolari last night was determined to paint the early months of his reign as being characterised by incremental improvement, touching repeatedly on the theme in a lengthy and far-reaching press conference that veered from anecdotes about "beautiful" female pitch invaders to debates on the merits of Colombia.
“Everyone knows there are no shortcuts for success, you need to win in stages and we have to go to each stage to reach the final goal," Scolari said. "That’s what we are doing now. In each stage we need to add improvements – one player comes in or moves to a new position. You have to go in stages. At the moment I am happy with this stage I am at, and we have to go through to the next one. As time goes by I am preparing one or two more players for my team for the World Cup."
Some of his incremental changes have worked, some have not. In attack, Fred, while not a complete all-round striker, is looking something like the poacher Brazil require with three goals in Scolari’s three games to date; conversely, and rather worryingly, Neymar is without a goal in four since November.
The Santos forward is believed to be content to remain in Brazil until the World Cup finals and as such is the poster boy for the tournament. Scolari must therefore extract the maximum from his most talented player, yet a fine run and assist for Oscar in a 2-2 draw against Italy last week has been the extent of his contribution under the new regime.
Popping up on the left, right and through the centre, his three excursions to Europe with Scolari's national team have demonstrated that Brazil are yet to identify his perfect role in the team. That should be Scolari's number one concern as he plots the next stage in Brazil's gradual evolution.
One young player has been a welcome constant as the team adapts around him though. Oscar has started every Scolari game, with the coach who won the World Cup by harnessing the unique talents of Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo reserving a key role for the Chelsea man. After a bright performance in a 2-1 loss to England and a fine goal in a 2-2 draw against Italy, Oscar was again very tidy in the yellow and blue of his country against Russia. The willowy playmaker has a certain grace about him and looks made for international football.
The identity of the third player behind the striker is a matter of much more concern. Ronaldinho performed extremely poorly against England and though Kaka showed some flashes of his once striking talent against Russia, his overall demeanour was that of another fading veteran whom may be beyond rejuvenation. Scolari's loyalty to the old guard is endearing, but presumably finite.
Perhaps his next tweak could be to move Oscar into that central role and allow Hulk to perform out wide with Neymar. The Zenit star was in electric form as a substitute at Stamford Bridge, fighting and finessing his way through the Russia defence with regularity as well as playing a fine pass in the build-up to Fred's late equaliser.
Lazio's Hernanes, playing in a deep role in midfield, also impressed with his array of stepovers and flicks and exemplary use of limited space, but it was the player who charged on to Hulk's fine pass in the final minutes and teed the ball up for Fred who appeared to have laid a seed in Scolari's mind. Marcelo's performance, the left-back providing real purpose and combining brilliantly with Hulk, was undoubtedly one of the increments Scolari was looking for.
Offering enthusiastic praise for a player whose defensive capabilities have been questioned in the past, he said: "Marcelo was a very skilful player doing the best of his play in defending and attacking, keeping his position and trying to help the team. I always thought Marcelo was a good defender and tonight he proved it."
Given that genuine wins continue to elude Scolari, such small personal victories will have to make do for now. But there will soon come a time when glacial progress is no longer enough for the most demanding of football publics.
- Sports & Recreation
- Luiz Felipe Scolari