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Portugal's 'Big Phil' making big plans

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GENEVA, Switzerland – To those who have never seen him before, Luis Felipe Scolari must come across as a bit of a clown, with his wild eyes, twitching expressions and extravagant gesticulations.

But beneath the jovial and sometimes wacky exterior of the Portugal coach lies one of the smartest football brains in the world, one which could soon land him the most lucrative coaching job in the game.

Scolari has moved to the top of the list of favorites for the vacant manager's position at English Premier League power Chelsea, and his pledge to remain silent on his future until after Euro 2008 will only add to the speculation linking him with the post.

The Brazilian's behavior is so unpredictable that it is hard to get an accurate read on his thoughts, but there does appear to be an extra fraction of urgency about this, his third bid to lift a major trophy with Portugal.

It is not the way he sings A Portuguesa (the national anthem) at maximum decibels and with chest-bursting passion, or the way he spends each 90 minutes on the sideline pacing and waving at referees, assistants and his players in equal measure.

Instead, it is in the way he talks about his desire of winning this tournament and his belief that his group can achieve it – the way that just for a split-second the jocular masquerade gives way and his eyes convey his true feelings.

Scolari has endured heartache in the past, especially in this event four years ago when, as tourney host, Portugal was on the wrong end of a huge shock in the final as underdog Greece claimed the title.

"Big Phil" came close again in the 2006 World Cup with a semifinal showing, but this is arguably an even better opportunity for international glory.

With the world's best player in Cristiano Ronaldo at the peak of his powers and backed up by an outstanding supporting cast, there is no doubt the Portuguese are capable of beating any team if they play to their potential.

Saturday night's 2-0 victory here over Group A rivals Turkey was the perfect way to begin the campaign and proved beyond doubt that this is far from being a one-man team.

"For the years since I started coaching the Portuguese squad, we finally gave the display I expected," Scolari said. "We are on the right path."

A fitting and symbolic moment came when beloved but aging captain Nuno Gomes was substituted to a standing ovation and handed over his skipper's armband to Ronaldo, the present and the future of this talented team. However, while Ronaldo will have several more shots at international titles with Portugal, this could be it for Scolari, with Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich's millions likely to be waiting for him at the Euro 2008 exit door.

It is doubtful whether the 59-year-old Scolari would manage a national team again, assuming he does make the decision to walk away from Portugal after five years at the helm.

If he makes that walk without a Euro winner's medal in his pocket, he may feel a sense of wasted opportunity. Saturday's results, with the Czech Republic beating Switzerland 1-0 in the earlier game, put Portugal already within striking distance of quarterfinal qualification.

Wednesday's clash with the Czechs, also in Geneva, is likely to decide the Group A winner, which is potentially important as the second-place finisher could find itself up against bookies favorite Germany in the last eight.

Scolari does all he can to ease the pressure on his players' shoulders and does so by being, publicly at least, a short-term thinker.

He was pleased when Ronaldo took a pledge of silence about his possible move from Manchester United to Real Madrid until after the tournament. Scolari will remain mum as well about the Chelsea opening for the next month. Even on the topic of winning this European championship, he refuses to look past Wednesday night.

But in his quiet moments, when the mask of his public persona is peeled off, Luis Felipe Scolari must already be dreaming of what might be, of the glittering prize that would be the perfect way to sign off. That hunger for success is a big reason why he – and Portugal's title hopes – should be taken seriously.

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