x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Bora the journeyman

The job of being the Iraq coach holds no fear for the well-travelled Serbian.

Bora Milutinovic oversees an Iraq training session at the Ruimsig Stadium in Johannesburg.
Bora Milutinovic oversees an Iraq training session at the Ruimsig Stadium in Johannesburg.

Bora Milutinovic plays on his reputation. His email address includes the word "mundial", Spanish for World Cup, and he's happy to hand it out to anyone who cares to contact him, particularly people from Football Federations who need urgent help in the months ahead of World Cup tournaments. Bora Milutinovic, you see, is a specialist in these sorts of assignments. He has been to five of football's major global showpieces, with five different employers, from three different continents.

First there was Mexico, the nearest Bora - everyone knows him as plain Bora, rather than Milutinovic - has to a place he can call home. He managed their national side in the World Cup of 1986, and took them, at home, to the quarter-finals. He guided Costa Rica to Italia 90 - they beat Scotland there - and they reached the last 16. He was in charge of the USA when the States hosted the 1994 jamboree. Again they pierced the frontier of phase one. In charge of Nigeria at France 98, he oversaw a somewhat chaotic campaign but still made it to the second stage. Only with China, in 2002, was his stay been limited to three group matches.

That he missed out on the 2006 finals was not for want of trying. Bora was spotted that February hanging around the African Nations Cup in Egypt, just in case a suitor should approach him. His unique status in the game, the hired hand par excellence, for whom no notice is too short, has been challenged in the last decade by men like Guus Hiddink, who has now led three different countries to World Cups and may, with Russia, be leading a fourth to one. But Bora, 64, with his grizzled features, still has a "Mr Fixit" cachet. His latest mission confirms it: many coaches would have been put off by the working conditions of the head coach of Iraq.

Bora, Serbian by birth, a Francophone thanks to a playing career that took him into the French Championnat in the late 1960s and early 70s, took over Iraq in April. "The players need discipline," the president of the Iraqi Football Federation, Hussain Saeed, told Bora when he touched down for the first time in Baghdad. "No problem," smiled the globetrotter. "That's my speciality." He then shared a touching story with his new employers, remembering how he and they had crossed paths during Iraq's one venture to a World Cup finals, in 1986. "My Mexico played Iraq on June 11th," Bora recalled, "and my daughter was due to be born that day. I asked the doctors to put forward the birth, partly because I knew the medical staff would want to be watching the game."

With the Iraq of a quarter of a century later, Bora has inherited a team which won the Asian Cup in 2007, under another peripatetic coach, Jorvan Vieira. If the continental crown was a surprising success, the growth of Iraqi football, in spite of surrounding conflict, had been detectable before then. The squad reached the semi- finals of the Athens Olympic tournament in 2004 and were Asian youth champions at the turn of the new millennium. Alas for Bora, and indeed for a good generation of footballers who have had their efforts compromised by unsettled times, they will not be at the next World Cup, having fallen in the qualifying stages.

The Confederations Cup, which begins in South Africa today is some compensation. Iraq kick off the tournament against the host country, ranked 72 in the world by Fifa to Iraq's 77. "I found a squad with better potential than I expected," says Bora. "There's a good atmosphere and, with all the overseas players bringing in their experience, we'll be competitive. I think we've got the capability of reaching the semis."

ihawkey@thenational.ae