The move of Big Phil Scolari (Felipão) to Chelsea is a disaster for the Portuguese national team. Many in Portugal and abroad think Scolari’s role in Portugal’s success is just a detail or even that he has been hindering the nation’s success. After all Portugal is blessed with fantastic footballers, but for all the raw talent the Portuguese football team has always been poorly managed which always failed to address two chronic problems:
- over influence from the clubs over the national team to ensure that lucrative contracts can be obtained; and,
- a high level of nervousness at the beginning of each competition with the team invariably being favourites and going out on early goals by theoretically weak opponents.
When Scolari arrived all this changed. He brought to Portugal a new vocabulary of professionalism unheard in Portugal until the arrival of José Mourinho at club level. And this professionalism has been key to the increased importance of Portugal in the European and World stages. Scolari’s revolution of Portuguese football was driven by two decisions:
- the destruction of the influence club presidents have over the national team selections; and,
- the implementation of a siege mentality around the team which meant that fickle, soft headed and attention seeking football players could cope better with the pressure.
Number two is a classical top managerial strategy; just look at the most successful manager of our time – Fergusson, Wenger or Mourinho – and you will siege mentality all over. However, it is the first one that matters in the Portuguese context and the one that is harder to deliver.
The background to the shambles behind the Portuguese team is a colourful history of poor displays. In 1984, out of the blue with a team of four managers Portugal achieved the unbelievable and reached the semi-finals. No one was expecting, so nobody cared. So, in 86, when Portugal qualified for the World Cup, expectations were high. However, the display in Mexico was poor and the chief reason for this was a series of altercations between the Portuguese team and the Portuguese federation destroyed all the work after the spectacular first game the victory over England. The team never recovered, they were beaten by Poland and Morocco, players were subsequently suspended and many never played for Portugal again. In short, Mexico 86 was a footballing and management tragedy for Portugal.
Parallel to this, Carlos Queiroz was developing some astonishing work with a new generation of players. He led the Portuguese national under-20 youth team to two Football World Youth Championship wins, in the 1989 and 1991 tournaments. Again, no one was noticing this work in Portugal until the first victory in 1989 and most of the players were not playing in the first division. So, Queiroz was able to work completely under the radar.
So, by 1996 this new generation of players – Luís Figo, Rui Costa, Vitor Baía , Paulo Sousa and João Pinto – were beginning to mature and Portugal qualified to the Euro 1996. The tournament wasn’t bad for Portugal, but there were snippets of lack of professionalism and a total incapacity to turn events around. So, for example, when the Czech Republic scored in the quarter finals Portugal never looked like it could score again.
The Euro 2000 resulted in another mini-tragedy for Portugal. After a fairly decent performance during the group stages and in the Quarter Finals against Turkey, the Portuguese team faced France where a group of players – Nuno Gomes, Abel Xavier and João Pinto – were suspended for protesting in a threatening manner for a clear penalty.
Things got really bad when in the 2002 World Cup Portugal conceded a goal within 4 minutes of the first match against the USA and it never recovered. It all ended with João Pinto kicking the referee in the last match and being suspended for god knows how long.
It was after this nightmare that Scolari arrived and things were never again this unprofessional. Portugal began to display a control of every game that was unheard of and, more importantly, Portugal began winning games where its performance wasn’t great. A great example of this new found mental strength was when in the Euro 2004 Portugal conceded an early goal against Greece, lost that match, but it went on to lead the group and got all the way to the final.
One of the funny things is, despite all this Scolari is deeply hated in Portugal. Porto supporters hate him because he never picked Vitor Baía at his peak. Benfica supporters hate him because they are deluded about the quality of their players and think the national manager always makes the wrong decisions. And the rest is fed up with his antics and everyone seems to think that he should’ve done better with the great players that he has at his disposal. However, this same people forget that other managers – Humberto Coelho or António Oliveira – had also a great generation at their disposal and did bugger all.
I do agree that Scolari doesn’t get it right all the time – he was tactically naïve against Greece in the Final of the Euro 2004. But what is important to remember is that Scolari gets it right more than he gets it wrong and that is a big difference. During Scolari’s reign at the helm of Portugal he has given Portuguese football an overwhelmingly positive reputation and the nation should be thankful.
But they are not. They think that Scolari can be replaced easily and Portugal will continue to shine because of its players. I disagree. It will all depend on who will be the next guy. My guess is that both Porto and Benfica won’t let another loose cannon control the national team again. One of their guys will be in charge and Portugal will return to its usual mediocrity.