Copa Libertadores final: Luiz Felipe Scolari's storied career reaches its last chapter

By Sports Desk October 28, 2022

A question we've likely all been asked in job interviews is: "Where do you see yourself in five years?"

Admittedly, it's difficult to imagine Roman Abramovich adding that to his list of essential questions ahead of meeting prospective Chelsea managers during his time as owner. After all, no head coach even reached three and a half years in one go under the Russian's ownership.

But Luiz Felipe Scolari went into his ultimately brief stint as Chelsea boss with a fairly clear vision for his future. Attending his first Chelsea press conference in Neuchatel, Switzerland, where he was based with his Portugal team for Euro 2008, 'Felipao' – 59 at the time – gave himself another five years in management.

"I will be 60 soon and I don't want to be technical coach forever. I want to work for five more years and then I want to retire."

More than 14 years later, Scolari is at long last about to call it a day. But first he has one last shot at glory with Athletico Paranaense in Saturday's Copa Libertadores final, a success that he believes would be the "pinnacle" of 40-year coaching career.

The catalyst

The vast majority of Athletico's squad weren't even born when Scolari took charge of his first Libertadores final in 1995.

He led his beloved Gremio – the team he supported growing up – to their second continental crown on that occasion thanks to a 4-2 aggregate defeat of Colombia's Atletico Nacional in August 1995.

A comical Victor Marulanda own goal – a sliced lob over 'scorpion-kick' visionary Rene Higuita – sent Gremio on their way, before Mario Jardel pounced on a spill by the eccentric Atletico goalkeeper to make it 2-0 before half-time in the first leg.

Paolo Nunes slammed in from close range early in the second half after Higuita again failed to hold the ball. Juan Pablo Angel's clever finish at least ensured Atletico returned home with something to fight for in the second leg, and Victor Aristizabal's early goal back in Medellin stoked the belief, but Dinho finished them off from the spot in the 85th minute.

That Gremio side was a pure embodiment of the ethos that eventually defined Scolari's playing style. It may not have been a team full of superstars, but they were tough and hard-working. It wasn't quite 'jogo bonito', yet they were a clinical attacking force and Scolari guided them to six trophies in three years.

Nevertheless, Scolari's second Copa Libertadores success in 1999 – with Palmeiras – was arguably the precursor to his most famous achievement.

For starters, it was Palmeiras' first Libertadores title. Secured with a 4-3 penalty shootout win over Deportivo Cali after the two were locked at 2-2 at the end the two legs, the success elevated Scolari to an altogether different standing in management, proving his Gremio spell was no fluke.

"I cemented my career on that title, I really expanded my horizons and had the opportunity to grow. This was made possible by Palmeiras."

Global recognition

Less than a year after leaving Palmeiras for Cruzeiro in June 2000, Scolari landed the biggest job of them all.

With Brazil's World Cup qualification campaign in danger of failure, Scolari was brought in to get them over the line. He certainly achieved that.

 

The Selecao actually lost to Uruguay in Scolari's first game and they were humiliatingly knocked out of the 2001 Copa America by Honduras.

But they got the results to take them to Japan and South Korea, where they flourished.

Scolari's exclusion of Romario from the squad for the finals was contentious but soon forgotten once the tournament started, with Brazil inspired by the legendary trio of Ronaldo, Rivaldo and Ronaldinho.

They were comfortably the best team on display at the 2002 World Cup, winning all seven games – the first side to win 100 per cent of their games at a single edition of the tournament since 1970 – as they claimed a record-extending fifth title.

 

Scolari's career was made. He helped right the wrongs of 1998, and there was an acknowledgement he could do no more for the team as he left his post after the World Cup.

He subsequently took over Portugal and led them to the final of Euro 2004 before bowing out at the semi-final and quarter-final stages at the 2006 World Cup and Euro 2008 respectively.

Scolari couldn't recreate his Brazil success with Portugal, but he was a World Cup winner and nothing could take that away.

The greatest achievement of all?

That five-year spell in charge of Portugal was something of an anomaly – Scolari had never even managed four years in one job and he's enjoyed a fairly nomadic career ever since his Chelsea exit in early 2009.

But in this period was a gutting low that even threatened to overshadow his 2002 World Cup success.

Of course, Scolari was in charge when Brazil were demolished on home soil by Germany at the 2014 World Cup, with the eventual champions remarkably winning their semi-final encounter 7-1 in Belo Horizonte in one of the most infamous games in tournament history.

 

Brazil players left the pitch in tears, Scolari went on to resign, and many would suggest Brazil still haven't healed from that nightmare.

"I need a hug," Scolari said as he returned to Gremio later that month. "I came back at this moment because I need a hug, some affection."

He may not have brought success back to Gremio, but he did go on to enjoy a trophy-laden spell in China with Guangzhou Evergrande, and he even guided Palmeiras to Brasileiro glory as recently as 2018.

But there's something considerably more remarkable about the situation he now finds himself in at Athletico – yes, that's Athletico rather than Atletico after the club reverted to their founding name in 2018.

Scolari was hired in May as a technical director and he also took the reins as coach until the end of the season, given the task of steadying the ship after Athletico hit a difficult patch that culminated in an embarrassing 5-0 Libertadores defeat to Bolivia's The Strongest, costing Fabio Carille his job.

No one can argue with Scolari's impact, leading Athletico – whom he claims have only the 13th-biggest budget in Brazil – to just their second Libertadores final. Flamengo await and are favourites, but Scolari has presided over a shock by even getting his team this far.

 

"This career is coming to an end indeed," he told the Associated Press. "If we win the Copa Libertadores, it will be the pinnacle of a career for which I worked a lot. I never expected this much, winning all that I have won."

It would've been easy for Scolari to walk away for good in 2014, punishing himself for Brazil's humiliation by disappearing into a retirement brought about by self-deprecation.

But he fought on and stands on the precipice of an achievement he believes will outshine all that have come before.

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