SAO PAULO – Luiz Felipe Scolari likely faces the last final of his 40-year coaching career on Saturday when he leads Athletico against Flamengo in the Copa Libertadores decider.
It's the third straight all-Brazilian final in South America’s most prestigious club competition.
The match at Guayaquil, Ecuador, looks like being a landmark for the 73-year-old Scolari, affectionately known as “Big Phil.”
“This career is coming to an end indeed,” Scolari told The Associated Press in Sao Paulo earlier this month. “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.”
Scolari's career has seen the highest of highs — he led Brazil to its last World Cup title in 2002 — and the lowest of lows when Germany humiliated tournament host Brazil 7-1 in the semifinals of the 2014 edition.
Scolari also took Portugal to the final of the European Championship in 2004, when it lost to Greece.
He has won two Copa Libertadores titles as a coach. This will be his fourth final. His team from the city of Curitiba is chasing its first title in the competition in its second final. Flamengo, the 1981 and 2019 champion, lost last year to Palmeiras.
After Brazil's World Cup humiliation in Belo Horizonte, Scolari — whose career included a turbulent spell at Premier League team Chelsea — returned to his boyhood club Gremio and won several titles in China with Guangzhou Evergrande.
Now without his famous mustache, Scolari became Athletico's technical director on May 4. But five days later, with the team struggling in different tournaments, he became coach for the rest of the season.
“I still think as a coach, not as a technical director. But I think I will end this year here and help appoint someone to take over next year,” Scolari said. Since taking charge, Athletico has knocked two giants out of the Copa Libertadores — Argentina's Estudiantes de la Plata and defending champion Palmeiras of Brazil.
“The power that Flamengo, Palmeiras have is much bigger than ours. Our payroll is smaller than about 12 clubs in Brazilian soccer,” Scolari said. Athletico has a promising 17-year old striker Vitor Roque, with Uruguayan midfielder David Terans its best player.
Scolari is also looking ahead to the World Cup starting Nov. 20 in Qatar. He believes Brazil's current generation of players is so good that it could dominate the tournament for the next three editions.
“(Brazil's players) have this World Cup, probably 2026 too and many of them will be around in 2030," Scolari said when asked about strikers Vinicius Jr, Raphinha and Antony, who have brought new energy to the Selecao playing alongside Neymar and other veterans in European clubs.
“These kids starting now might give us the result we want. But we can't put too much pressure. In the next four years they will probably be even better,” Scolari said.
He's also hoping for a good performance from Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal, which Scolari calls "my second nation now.”
Asked about the best and worst moments of his overall career, Scolari said he couldn't pick.
“The happiest, not the best, was at the start. I did not have this dream of going so far and I won the Rio Grande do Sul state championship with Gremio,” Scolari said. “There was not a worst moment. There's stages that don't work, like 2014, and you have to work to pick yourself up. I left here, went to China and in 11 tournaments we played we won seven. Believe me, there's no special defeat.”
Scolari says he wants to continue working at Athletico as a technical director but is ready to fully retire if he doesn't fit and go back to Porto Alegre to become a full-time Gremio fan.
Whatever happens, life is good right now for the veteran coach.
“I am in good health, I have three grandchildren in Portugal, a new granddaughter coming up in Brazil, I have friends all over the world. I never thought this was possible,” a tearful Scolari said. “My son just bought a seat at Gremio's stadium, behind the dugout. Today I can't go there, but maybe within a year I will be able to."
Scolari remains in love with football of course.
“Soccer still moves me,” Scolari said. “But I will live it less intensively.”
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