SBJ/May 6 - 12, 2002/Opinion

World Cup's always full for able coach

One of these days, some snappy business school will start a hall of fame for sports managers. When it does, it should reserve a niche — hey! a wing — for Bora Milutinovic.

Bora, which is what everyone calls him, is a soccer coach extraordinaire, and when that sport begins its 17th World Cup competition at the end of this month in Japan and Korea, he will have done something no one else has, which is to lead his fifth different national team into the championship rounds of the quadrennial event.

His streak began with Mexico in 1986 and continued with Costa Rica in 1990, the United States in '94 and Nigeria in '98. This time he'll be coaching the team from China, which will be making its World Cup debut. If the past is a guide, inexperience at the world level won't be a particular hindrance to his current crew. None of his previous four teams had any great international standing in the sport, but each made it past the finals' first round. That's something else no other coach has accomplished.

Milutinovic is a native of Yugoslavia who lives in Mexico City when he's not off doing his thing in another part of the globe. He's an effervescent sort with good teeth, a fine mane of graying dark hair and the best tan in any crowd.

He speaks five languages, sometimes all in the same sentence. Chinese isn't one of them, but it surprises no one that that has been no detriment to his carrying out his tasks in that land. He didn't speak much English and his American players understood him fine, although they, like the reporters who covered the team, giggled when he referred to it as "our muchachos."

Getting the United States through the first round of the 1994 fest probably was his greatest achievement. The Americans got a pass into the field by virtue of their status as host, but they had gotten that far just once before in the previous 44 years and had won or tied only one finals match in all that time. Under Milutinovic's tutelage, they tied Switzerland and beat a good Colombian team. While they were outclassed by eventual champ Brazil in the playoffs, the 1-0 score of that game meant they at least had a chance at a better result. The next time around, in France in 1998, a better-on-paper American squad, under different guidance, lost all three of its games and was rated last among the 32 nations in the competition.

According to his players from the '94 team, Milutinovic spoke better English to them than he did to outsiders, but the issue wasn't vital because the language of soccer transcends national boundaries. His leadership communicated itself in ways that would have been apparent in any of the diverse cultures in which he's worked.

"Just his being there was important, because he had an international reputation, and it rubbed off on us," says midfielder Tab Ramos. "Also, he made it clear that no matter what other people thought, he believed in us and in our chances. Even against Brazil, we took the field thinking we could win."

Tony Meola, a goalie on the team, concurs. "We didn't have the greatest personnel, and we knew it, but Bora made us better than we were. He gave us a system of defense and ball control that kept us in games, and the confidence to carry it out. And when we had success, he shared the credit. I remember that after the Colombia win, he said his few words and left the rest of the bows to us."

Milutinovic has no illusions about his branch of management. "As a coach, you win and you're king, you lose and they fire you," he's said.

But if you're good, like he is, you always pop up again.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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