WORLD CUP ’94: 35 DAYS AND COUNTING : Bora! Bora! Bora? : Milutinovic Enjoyed World Cup Success With Mexico and Costa Rica, but the United States Might Be His Biggest Challenge
It can be anywhere--Albuquerque or Yemen. It can be in Buenos Aires or San Francisco. At a hotel or on a soccer field. It is always a crowd. Sometimes a throng.
They seek him. They are Serbian, Czech, Romanian. . . . They are from Guadalajara or San Salvador or San Jose. Some are sycophants, some are fans.
The object of their desire is Velibor Milutinovic. Bora, the coach of the U.S. World Cup team. Often it’s a phone call, but it might also be a note pressed into the hand of someone else to be passed on. If he’s approached in person, he might stop and sign an autograph. Or he might select one of five languages and chat briefly. He might shake a hand, kiss a child.
He might linger, but he won’t stay. He must always move. Away from Yugoslavia and the memories of World War II, which left him an orphan. Away from the soccer clubs that he says have cheated him. Always moving to the next place, which is sure to be better.
He is always optimistic, but wary.
Milutinovic was born in Bajina Basta, in Yugoslavia’s Serbian republic, but didn’t live there long. The war changed that. First his father and then his mother were killed fighting the Nazis, and he and his sister and four brothers were sent to live with an aunt in Bor, about 30 miles from the borders of Romania and Bulgaria. The loss was deeply felt and long held. Even now, with his facility for languages, Milutinovic refuses to learn or speak German.
His aunt was a strict disciplinarian, which made life difficult for a hyperkinetic youngster. School was important to his aunt, but soccer was important to Bora. At 15, Milutinovic had finished the schooling offered in the small town and with his brothers went to live in Belgrade.
Milutinovic thought this new arrangement would be a bonanza--he and his brothers would play soccer all day and forget about school. But Milos Milutinovic, one of Yugoslavia’s greatest players, was far more strict than his aunt had been. The new rules: No soccer until school and schoolwork were finished.
But soccer was Bora’s destiny. Milos and Milorad were already spectacular soccer players and able to judge their younger brother’s talent. As he improved, they acquiesced and soccer became the focus of family life. The three were on the Yugoslav national team at the same time, and the Milutinovic name became famous in Europe.
Bora was a midfielder with Belgrade for 10 years, four on the youth team and six with the first team. He played on the Yugoslav Olympic team in 1964. Two years later, Milutinovic had a chance to play in Switzerland. He took it. And he went back to his homeland only once.
His second life began on the road. After Switzerland, Milutinovic played in Monaco, France, coached in Argentina and, finally, Mexico. In Mexico City, Milutinovic found his heart.
“Serbians and Mexicans are the same,” he said. “It’s the same feeling and atmosphere. I am more Mexican than Yugoslav. I’ve lived in Mexico for 19 years. In Belgrade, I had no identification with anything. In Mexico, I like the people.”
His plan called for him to stay for two years. Milutinovic’s first wife, a Yugoslav, didn’t care for Mexico and left. They divorced. Milutinovic then met the sister of a teammate and they married. He and Mari Carmen have a daughter, Darinka, who is named after Milutinovic’s mother.
Mexico became home. For the first time, Milutinovic put down roots. His playing career evolved into a coaching career and worldwide fame.
The idea of the United States scouring the world to find a coach for its national soccer team displeased many coaches in the United States.
“I had coaches in our own federation who thought I had sold out the coaching program in the United States,” said Hank Steinbrecher, general secretary of the U.S. Soccer Federation, who conducted the job interviews.
But American coaches had not proved their worth on the international stage. The United States, for instance, lost all three games in the 1990 World Cup finals under Bob Gansler, who had never even been to the World Cup as a spectator.
When the USSF’s search began in 1991, the emphasis was not so much on experience--plenty of candidates had that--but on finding a coach who could squeeze the last drop of potential out of a lightly regarded team. Milutinovic’s name came up again and again. He had coached first Mexico, then Costa Rica to surprising World Cup success.
German Coach Franz Beckenbauer told the USSF that Milutinovic was the only person who could do the job.
“Beckenbauer said, ‘In order to coach in the United States, you need a very special human being. Bora can do the job for you. He’s the only guy you should hire,’ ” Steinbrecher said.
Steinbrecher visited Milutinovic at his home in Mexico City and on the flight back said to himself, “This is our man.”
Milutinovic sometimes comes across as scatterbrained and disorganized, but he showed Steinbrecher detailed records of World Cup preparations from 1986 and 1990.
The other issue was Milutinovic’s reputation as a carpetbagging coach who followed the paychecks around the world. His personal charm, some said, masked insincerity and clever calculation. The USSF was aware and concerned. But it wasn’t looking for a commitment as much as results.
“I grew to respect him over the years, more than when I first met him,” Steinbrecher said. “There’s a method behind his madness. I thought he was a quick-fix artist and he’d just come in and coach us through the World Cup. I’ve been impressed with the way he works with the younger players. These people who see him only as fluff--they are seriously mistaken. He’s very cagey.”
Evasiveness is one of Milutinovic’s defense mechanisms. For example, he says he’s 49. But the official report of the 1990 World Cup lists him as 51 at the time, which would make him 55 now.
A favorite of his tactics is to never answer a direct question directly. This used to mean not answering in English. Now, it means using greatly improved English but simply not answering.
The personable Milutinovic is well liked by reporters, but he has proved to be of little use as a source for information about his team.
It might have all been part of the plan.
“Bora is a very evasive guy when it comes to giving out information that he wants to keep close to him,” said Steinbrecher, who said Milutinovic doesn’t even tell him the players who are going to start. “Bora does the sidestep better than anybody. He has a unique charm when it comes to this. I don’t want to squelch it. He’s generated a hell of a lot of interest.”
This shows itself at every stop the national team makes. Milutinovic is mobbed by expatriate Yugoslavs or Mexicans or other soccer-loving people. But Milutinovic is far less known in the United States than in other countries. He knows it but says he doesn’t care.
“If you are with me in restaurants, the cooks know me,” he says, laughing. “These people, and the gardeners, they know me. This is enough. You have good results, you are famous. You don’t have good results, you are not famous. This is the life.”
There are parallels between Milutinovic’s tenure as coach of the U.S. World Cup team and his previous national coaching jobs.
Despite its status as World Cup host in 1986, Mexico’s national team had little realistic basis for high expectations. In eight previous World Cup finals, Mexico had compiled a record of 3-17-4 and had failed to qualify in 1982.
Milutinovic was widely known by Mexico’s soccer fans as the successful coach of the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico Pumas club in Mexico City. In six seasons under him, Pumas won two league titles, two CONCACAF Champions Cups and one Inter-Americana Cup. The competition in the World Cup finals is on a higher level, but insistent fans fully expected Milutinovic to transfer his success from one arena to another.
He succeeded by reordering the structure of Mexican soccer and wresting control of the national team players from the clubs that paid their salaries. A training camp was established and the World Cup team, for the most part, trained together daily for more than year.
Milutinovic also planned an ambitious preparation that no nation had before undertaken, scheduling 62 games--nearly 50 full internationals. Critics said the barnstorming exposed the team to too many games in too little time. Milutinovic had an idea he was right about the World Cup buildup. In the three years he coached the Mexican national team, Milutinovic compiled a 29-7-15 record.
Thus were the high expectations of Mexican fans justified. Milutinovic made shrewd use of his assistant coaches, dispatching them to scout the team’s first-round opponents by posing as fans and ingratiating themselves with team officials.
The team also wrung out the maximum home advantage by playing all its first-round games in Azteca Stadium in Mexico City, a venue that, for opponents, offered the lethal double whammy of 120,000 Mexican fans screaming at altitude.
The home team rolled through to the quarterfinals, drawing West Germany in the heat of Monterrey. Mexico’s unraveling began late in the first half when its playmaker, Thomas Boy, was injured and had to leave the game. West Germany won on penalty kicks.
Only after the disappointment had subsided did Mexico begin to evaluate its team’s sixth-place performance and deem it creditable. Not since 1970, when Mexico was also the host nation, had the team advanced as far as the quarterfinals.
Before the next World Cup, Milutinovic got an emergency call from Costa Rica. The team, along with the United States, had already qualified for the 1990 Italian World Cup from the CONCACAF region. Scarcely two months before the start of the finals, Milutinovic was called in to repair a splintered team.
Milutinovic’s first move was to dump six popular players, among them the team captain. He reasoned that the team would be better served with speed and strength than with unharnessed talent.
His second move also rankled fans. Because of the stifling pressure and distractions in Costa Rica, Milutinovic took his team to Italy five weeks early. That he preferred the relative tranquillity of soccer-mad Italy gives insight to the mania rampant in Costa Rica at the time.
To further loosen up his players, Milutinovic allowed, indeed encouraged, visits to local discos. The players soon became welcomed fixtures on the Genoa night scene. Thus did the smallest nation in the World Cup prepare for battle against soccer’s giants.
Milutinovic’s reputation as a master tactician was solidified during the tournament. He had a good goalkeeper but otherwise an average team. Improbably, Costa Rica beat Scotland and Sweden and lost, 1-0, to mighty Brazil, gaining the quarterfinals. Its CONCACAF cousin, the United States, was eliminated after losing all three games in the first round.
But the same luck that had brought down Roy in Mexico also knocked out Costa Rica’s goalkeeper, Gabelo Conejo, and suddenly Milutinovic’s team was out, losing to Czechoslovakia, 4-1.
But again, advancement past the first round was seen as a triumph. And so it would be viewed for the U.S. team.
U.S. Soccer Federation President Alan Rothenberg said Thursday that he had “unbridled confidence” in Milutinovic.
“He has the reputation as a miracle worker because of what he did with Mexico and Costa Rica,” Rothenberg said. “He’ll have his hands full duplicating those accomplishments.”
There are also these obscure statistics: Milutinovic has never coached a team through World Cup qualifying. The World Cup host nation has never failed to advance to the second round.
“Bora likes America,” said team General Manager Bill Nuttall. “I think he appreciates freedom. He appreciates that if we put our minds to something, we can get it done. He’s played everywhere. He’s been everywhere. He’s been affected by wars, by all kinds of adversity. He’s been affected by all that.”
Although he still gives the impression of being a moving target, Milutinovic does seem to enjoy his life in Laguna Niguel, even if he has not completely adopted American ways. The miracle worker works in his own way.
“From a traditional American management perspective, Bora is difficult,” Steinbrecher said. “He’ll change his direction; he’ll change his mind. He’s like a sly fox. But Bora and I understand each other. I think the man is a genius.
“Has he panned out? If you look at the win-loss record, the answer has to be no. If you look at where we were three years ago--stylistically, lack of competition, the credibility--the answer has to be yes.”
Milutinovic, who is under contract through December, suggests he still enjoys moving, but soon it might affect his daughter.
“Now, Darinka is young, it is not so bad,” he said. “I think it is good for her. She learns a new culture and can make new friends. At some age, after, we should stop for Darinka. For the school.
“I like to be on the road. People call me a Gypsy. But I like it. It is a chance for things. To learn a new language. To learn new things. It is good. For me to be happy, my private life and the team have to do well. Nothing more.”
Profile: Bora Milutinovic
* Name: Velibor Milutinovic.
* Date of birth: Sept. 7, 1944 (according to U.S. Soccer media guide).
* Place of birth: Bajina Basta, Yugoslavia.
* Nationality: Serbian.
* Date named national coach: March 27, 1991.
* Cumulative record (U.S. team, full internationals): 26-30-26; (full internationals with Mexico, Costa Rica and the U.S.): 57-41-41; (cumulative World Cup record): 5-2-2.
* Little-known item: He is believed to have coached in more full internationals than any other coach in history.
* Honors: He is one of only two coaches to have coached three countries in the World Cup final.