WORLD CUP USA 1994 : COMMENTARY : With the United States' Stage Set, Bora Misses His Cue


As we get close to the end of World Cup '94, a month of flag-waving and star-gazing over lots of people with only one name, let's flap the Stars and Stripes and discuss Bora.

Bora is not Pele. Nor is he Romario, Bebeto, Maradona, Alexi, Roberto or Leonardo.

He is Bora Milutinovic, coach of the U.S. soccer team that went to the round of 16 before being beaten by Bebeto and leveled by Leonardo. Bora is known only as Bora, mostly because having one name in soccer is a mark of singular stature. Also, sportswriters got tired of having to look up the spelling of Milutinovic.

Bora is much celebrated in our country. At the end of his team's 1-0 loss to Brazil at Stanford Stadium, television announcers gushed and gloated: What a wonderful thing it was for the good ol' USA to have even gotten this far. What a moral victory for us to hold Brazil to one goal. What a great step forward for soccer in this country.

What a lot of baloney.

Let it be said here that Bora blew it.

The dynamics of the game were as follows: Soccer was finally getting its due in the press and in the public. The United States' victory over Colombia was a national wake-up call. People were talking soccer in the men's room and the board room. The bizarre death of Andres Escobar, while a shocking turn-off, nevertheless further focused public attention on the emotional and psychotic grip this sport has on billions of people. And, perhaps most important for those who badly want soccer to be a permanent, best-selling entree on America's sports menu, the Brazil game would clearly attract the largest U.S. television audience ever for the sport.

It was a moment to be seized, an opportunity to be taken, a chance that demanded risk rather than routine.

So Bora played defense. Bora went the safe route, with a game plan that played not to win, but rather not to lose. Bora played for the fluke, the Brazilian mistake early that would give the United States a penalty and a lead it could cling to; or enough defense to somehow get into the crapshoot they call penalty kicks, where frequently the luckiest team--rather than the best--will win.

Bora's chances of beating Brazil were more none than slim. Nobody expected him to. Everybody was generally pleased that he had done what he always does with whatever World Cup team he happens to be coaching--take it one notch above the expectation and then pack his bags and ride away as a hero, heading for another country, another World Cup and another soccer quick fix. Bora is a master of the patch, caulk and quick touch-up around the window frames.

The U.S. game against Brazil, played on the Fourth of July, needed some fireworks. It needed to be 3-2 or 4-2. It needed lots of runs by the U.S. team--lots of chances, crosses, near misses, flying headers, posts hit. Winning wasn't really an issue here. It wasn't going to happen. There just wasn't another Andres Escobar mistake in the cards for Uncle Sam soccer.

So why not go down with guns blazing, instead of going through the entire game with only four shots on goal? Why not give those millions watching on TV in the United States--a vast majority actually caring about this for the first time in their lives--a hell of a show? Why not turn Eric Wynalda and Ernie Stewart loose? Why not let Thomas Dooley play like Italy's Dino Baggio, who is allowed to roam and penetrate from the midfield?

While the Fourth of July truly could have been the trigger for a soccer explosion in this country, that may happen, anyway. It appears that Alan Rothenberg and his people have built a solid foundation for soccer interest here, with their beautifully organized and run World Cup '94. But 90 minutes of excitement against Brazil, rather than 90 of falling back on defense and watching Brazil hit the post, would have enhanced greatly what Rothenberg has begun.

Bora was in control of a moment when big picture counted more than little, when marketing his sport was the most important thing, because winning wasn't a viable option. But Bora blew it.

It will be interesting to see what happens now, when the flags stop waving and Bebeto and Romario and their friends go off somewhere in search of a second name. It will be interesting to see if Bora stays on, or is asked to stay on, to head the U.S. program. His charm, charisma, knowledge of the international game and delightful fake broken English could make him an ongoing celebrity on the U.S. sports scene.

My guess is that he'll go back to Mexico, which is furious with his friend Miguel Mejia Baron; which has an established talent pool; which cares about little else in sports; which is very free with the peso for things like this and which probably can make the quarterfinals of World Cup '98 with just one quick coat.

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