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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 20 November 2018

World Cup Cult Heroes: Bora Milutinovic

Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

In the run-up to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, The National’s Gary Meenaghan looks back at the figures of World Cups past who, while not necessarily the greatest the game has ever seen, were among football’s most interesting characters.

BORA MILUTINOVIC

The New York Times once wrote, “If the United Nations had a soccer team, Bora Milutinovic would undoubtedly be its coach.” The Serb became the first manager to coach five nations at World Cup finals. Having taken four of them to the second round, he lives up to his sobriquet “Miracle Worker”.

Footballing Nomad

Milutinovic, born in Yugoslavia and orphaned by the Second World War, the Serb central midfielder played alongside his two brothers at Partizan Belgrade for six seasons before displaying the nomadic tendencies he would become renowned for during his managerial career. By the time he retired in 1976, he had switched clubs seven times in 10 years, taking him from Yugoslavia to Switzerland, France, then Mexico.

The Mexican Yugoslav

Milutinovic coached Mexico at the 1986 World Cup, on Mexican soil, taking them to the quarter-finals for only the second time in the nation’s history. He later said he felt “more Mexican than Yugoslav” and retains star status in the country. Two months before the 1990 World Cup, he accepted an invite from Costa Rica to repair a fractured squad. After dropping the captain, he took his new team to Italy five weeks early and encouraged them to visit discos to build team spirit. Victories over Sweden and Scotland saw the debutants unexpectedly progress.

The Miracle Worker

When Milutinovic was announced as coach of the US, he was introduced as the “Miracle Worker”, a sobriquet he liked almost as much as “Bora”. When the 1994 World Cup arrived, the group stage was safely negotiated. Three years later, he signed a deal to coach Nigeria at the World Cup in France. Despite poor results in warm-up matches, the Africans defeated Spain 3-2 and topped their group with maximum points.

Lionised in Liaoning

In 2001, Milutinovic experienced his first qualifying campaign saying that if he failed to book China a place at World Cup 2002, he would jump off the Great Wall. China qualified for the first time in history and a statue was erected in Liaoning Province to honour their remarkable coach. “After what I have achieved in such a short time, maybe they should put a statue of me in place of Mao,” he joked to World Soccer.

Mixed Opinions

Few deny his achievements, but some see Milutinovic as a mercenary, fortunate to coach countries at World Cup finals often without being involved in qualifying campaigns. A spell at Honduras in 2004 ended when his salary became the focus of the head of the country’s church. In a nation wracked with poverty, Bora’s $75,000 monthly wage had proved too much. “Nowhere have I been treated like some kind of criminal as I was here,” he told The Guardian in 2006. Since 2010, he has lived in Qatar, working as an ambassador for the 2022 World Cup.

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