BASEL, Switzerland – In his final days in charge of the Portugal national team, Luiz Felipe Scolari is failing to uphold one of the key facets of his coaching blueprint.
Scolari has always dedicated himself to relieving the pressure from his players by actively seeking it himself, and he has carefully and cleverly sidestepped potential off-field distractions. A well-timed joke, a funny face and a dose of verbal nonsense that asks as many questions as it answers are all aspects of Scolari's modus operandi when handling tricky issues.
Yet by burrowing himself away and refusing to comment on landing the Chelsea manager's job, one of the biggest positions in the game, for 72 hours after its announcement, he has destabilized a camp that was previously buoyant, settled and loving its chances of winning Euro 2008.
Portugal's players are not as slick as Scolari when it comes to handling situations that capture international attention, and they have been seriously rattled. Even a teary-eyed explanation from Scolari as to why he was leaving at a team lunch was unable to quell rumors of severe discontent in the squad.
After a perfect start to Portugal's bid to win a major tournament for the first time in its history, things are running far from smoothly now, even with qualification for the quarterfinals as Group A winners already secure. The Portuguese players may have suspected their coach would be on his way after Euro 2008, but they believed his assertion that he would not broach the topic during the tournament.
That decision was deemed utterly unworkable from the moment Chelsea released a brief statement on Wednesday night, just minutes after the Brazilian had left his postmatch conference following Portugal's 3-1 victory over the Czech Republic. That was the point when Scolari should have cleared the air and allowed his men to refocus on the task that lies ahead of them. Instead, he let the matter stew for the next few days, fanning the flames and the ire of the Portuguese public desperate for an explanation.
So much for protecting his players.
Goalkeeper Ricardo and defender Fernando Meira were thrown to the wolves on Friday as both were bombarded with questions that should only have been answered by their coach. Scolari only spoke when he was required by the rules of the tournament to do so at his official media briefing 24 hours before Portugal's final Group A match against Switzerland. He insisted the timing of the announcement did not show disrespect to his players or Portugal and admitted that the sheer financial strength of the Chelsea offer had played a pivotal role.
"What we will be going through will be the same, independent of any other situation," Scolari said. "We want this subject to be forgotten because nothing more will change.
"I have said it before many times that sometimes these opportunities only come around once."
While he was reluctant to give expansive answers, often responding with a nod or shake of the head and a grunt that passed for "yes" or "no," it was enough. But why couldn't it have been said on Wednesday night, or Thursday or Friday?
Sunday's game will represent a return to something approaching normality for Portugal's players, the field of play being their refuge from the external factors looming large over their campaign.
The next week will show whether damage has already been done – whether Scolari has, after all, played his final hand to perfection, or whether he allowed his future to interfere with his present.