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 By Tim Vickery

Scolari's mixed return to the Mineirao

Just over six weeks later, Luiz Felipe Scolari returned to the scene of the slaughter.

On July 8 he was in charge of Brazil as they fell to that astonishing, humiliating, historic 7-1 defeat to Germany in the World Cup semi final in the Mineirao stadium in Belo Horizonte. On Thursday night he was back, this time as coach of Brazilian side Gremio on their visit to take on Cruzeiro, who play their home matches in the Mineirao.

Scolari was welcomed back with open arms by the fans of Gremio, a club from Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil. It is Scolari's home region and a proudly, stubbornly independent minded part of the country. And Gremio is the club where Scolari made his name 20 years ago. The affection that greeted his return has doubtless been good medicine for a man who otherwise has been treated like a leper by many of his compatriots.

It was only a few weeks ago that he was "Big Phil," the charismatic father figure who had the local media eating out of his hand. The pressure cranked up and relations showed the strain while his Brazil team made unconvincing progress through the World Cup. Anyone who did not like his way of doing things, according to Scolari, could "go to hell." Cut down to size, the former "Big Phil" must have felt that he himself had been sent to hell as he watched his team collapse against Germany -- and then repeat the dose in the third place playoff match against Holland.

Scolari returned to the Mineirao on Thursday but tasted defeat again.
Scolari returned to the Mineirao on Thursday but tasted defeat again.

After losing his job, he must have felt he was sitting in a coconut shy, an easy target for popular contempt. A comedy TV show with a huge audience followed him onto the plane as he made his way down south to sign his deal with Gremio. Their reporter tried to conduct an interview on the aircraft, sitting in the seat opposite Scolari and firing away with his questions, all of which went unanswered.

It was more like a public humiliation than an attempted interview, with the reporter encouraging other passengers to give ironic applause to Scolari, who had the far away look of someone suffering from depression. There is often cruelty in humour. This, though, was cruelty with no humour. Still, Scolari was always aware that there would be a price for failing to win the World Cup on home ground -- though no one, least of all the previously super-confident coach, could have imagined that the hosts would perform quite so disastrously.

Some have now written him off as a museum piece. And, it is true, there was an element of past versus future in Thursday night's return to Belo Horizonte. It was a trip down to the deep end. Cruzeiro are the reigning Brazilian champions and the current league leaders, without doubt currently the outstanding domestic team. Scolari's replacement as national team boss, Dunga, has this week earned widespread approval for his decision to give two of their players their first international call-ups; attacking midfielders Everton Ribeiro and Ricardo Goulart have been named in the squad to take on Colombia and Ecuador next month.

Dunga hasn't included a single target man centre forward. Scolari, meanwhile, persisted with an immobile No. 9 figure, for the first hour of the game at least, and there was a further retro touch with the selection of 40-year-old former international Ze Roberto in his original position of left-back rather than in the midfield role he has filled for most of his career.

But the real story of Cruzeiro against Gremio was one of what might have been - both for this particular game and for Brazil's World Cup campaign.

Scolari was humiliated at the Mineirao six weeks earlier, a defeat he'll struggle to forget.
Scolari was humiliated at the Mineirao six weeks earlier, a defeat he'll struggle to forget.

Cruzeiro did most of the pressing but Gremio looked the more dangerous side. They had the clearest chances -- four times they were denied by wonderful saves from home captain Fabio, a goalkeeper strangely ignored by Scolari during his spell in charge of the national team. Fabio seemed to have made sure the game would end goalless but in the 85th minute, another Scolari reject played a decisive role in winning the game for Cruzeiro.

Strapping centre-back Dede, quick and powerful, had briefly been part of Scolari's national team squad but was left out when it mattered. Here, though, he gave Scolari a splendid resume of his virtues, breaking up a dangerous Gremio attack with a well-timed tackle, advancing, exchanging passes with the right-back and curling a delightful cross to the far post, where substitute Dagoberto headed the only goal of the game.

It was excellent centre-back play -- defend first and if possible, attack second -- very different priorities from those of David Luiz, Brazil's captain on the previous occasion that Luiz Felipe Scolari took a team to the Mineirao.

Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.


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