The height of the mountain that Luiz Felipe Scolari agreed to climb in November 2012 could be measured in decades. More precisely the seven and half passed since Vittorio Pozzo became the one (and still the only) man to win two World Cups as a manager. To make matters harder, the Brazil job could not have been more of a more poisoned chalice at the time -- an upcoming home World Cup and a generation of players that did not look "vintage Selecao" waited for him.
After almost two years in the job, Scolari has done reasonably well. But Friday's all-Latin affair against Colombia in Fortaleza is a match in which stakes couldn't be higher for Big Phil. If failure to win the tournament might somehow be forgiven in the greatest scheme of things, the Selecao's demise before the semifinals could shoot down his career comeback.
When Big Phil was unveiled as Mano Menezes' replacement, nostalgia rather than recent achievements was the hot air keeping his reputation afloat. Having crashed and burned at Chelsea in early 2009, the Brazilian reportedly turned down jobs in Portugal and Spain to accept a hefty contract in Uzbekistan that could have earned him over 13 million euros for 18 months. Instead, after less than a year he headed back to Brazil, more precisely to Palmeiras, the club that made him a household name in the country and had great influence in his first appointment to the national side, in 2001.
Just like he did 13 years ago, Scolari has the aura of a savior -- a no-nonsense manager whose paternal style could be a blessing for a group of players in need of some guidance. Unlike 2001, though, he would have to steer the ship through choppy waters relying upon a very different crew. Gone were the experienced players like Cafu, Rivaldo and Roberto Carlos, who were licking their wounds and eager to redeem themselves after the humiliation at France 1998. Instead, he needed to command a bunch of new faces.
Scolari has also changed. While in 2001 he was a fiery man who could intimidate any player -- he reportedly ended the jealousy between Ronaldo and Rivaldo by threatening to make them compete for a place in the starting lineup -- Big Phil 2.0 looks like a Zen monk in comparison, despite some digs and some huffing and puffing in news conferences.
It's almost as if he saw the Selecao as a chance to rebuild his managerial reputation as well as earn a statue or two in Brazil -- in an interview with English newspaper The Guardian last year, he didn't rule out attempting to work in Europe again. Mind you, before taking over, Scolari had turned down offers as early as 2006. "To me, the Selecao was already part of my past. Then came the invite from the Brazilian Football Confederation in 2012 and I couldn't simply run away from what seemed a historic occasion," he said.
As unfair as it is, hindsight suggests that Scolari may have overplayed his hand. Enthused by the latent potential in Neymar and the support of players such as Oscar and David Luiz, he devised a plan to build a team that could overcome the massive responsibility of playing a home tournament with heart and sweat.
The dress rehearsal, last year's Confederations Cup, could not have been more encouraging. However, 365 days are an eternity in football, and Brazil arrived for the World Cup in a very different moment. After four games, they have hardly looked like world-beaters, a fact that has got under Scolari's skin. After the Chile game, he "threatened" to become less diplomatic and raved about Brazil being the victims of some kind of refereeing conspiracy -- something that not even Howard Webb's erratic refereeing in Belo Horizonte could endorse.
His team looks jaded and has gotten this far in the competition thanks to a combination of spirit and some inspired individual performances -- specifically, Neymar's four goals in the competition and Julio Cesar's penalty heroics. Against a Colombian side that has been one of the hottest topics of this tournament, his Selecao side will need a performance they have not delivered so far. During the build-up, Scolari's anxiety could be seen in the form of constant tinkering in training sessions that included brief experiments with a 3-5-2 formation and the use of a false nine in lieu of the two misfiring centre-forwards (Fred and Jo) at his disposal.
Worse yet, he didn't look incensed, no matter what the "you may go to hell" jibe at his Thursday news conference might suggest. It was the subdued air he has shown in his most recent public outings that is so worrying. His team could do with a confidence boost.
It can all change on Friday against a Colombian side that gave Brazil a proper game the last time they met in 2012, a fiery 1-1 draw. James Rodriguez and co are having the time of their lives, while Brazil could not look tenser. It took Neymar to remind his teammates publicly that they should also be enjoying the occasion. It's time Big Phil cheered up a bit, too.