• Bora Milutinovic, who coached Iraq at the 2009 FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa, is the only man to coach five different countries at the World Cup finals
  • Iraq were crowned champions of Asia in 2007 and made their only appearance at a FIFA World Cup™ in 1986, where they lost all three games

Iraq’s journey to the Confederations Cup in 2009 was about much more than sport. “We wanted to show we are a nation of football and not just war,” said playmaker Nashat Akram, summing up the feeling in the team on the eve of the tournament.

“No matter where, the challenge of coaching is always the same: to have the team ready, confident and prepared,” Bora Milutinovic, the man tasked with channeling Iraq’s pride and passion into results at South Africa 2009, told FIFA.com. Iraq had been plagued by years of war and strife, and the country’s football association was recently suspended for government interference. But the Serbian known simply as "Bora" – or The Miracle Worker – has coached everywhere and has a way with people of all stripes. “I have been all over the world, and I can say this: situations are different from place to place, but football is the same. The look in the eye is the same and football is football.”

30 days in Doha
Milutinovic, an eccentric by any standard, is revered as a wide-smiling football wanderer. He’s the only coach to take five different teams to the World Cup: Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Nigeria and China PR. He saw all of those teams, save the debutante Chinese in 2002, beyond the first round. This was what fans, gathered around massive screens set up all around Baghdad in the summer of ‘09, were hoping for despite the many challenges of taking a war-ravaged nation to the international football stage. 

“I had 30 days to get the team ready,” said Milutinovic, now 72, about the training camp he went through with his new charges in Doha, Qatar. Iraq hadn’t played a “home game” on home soil in years due to security concerns and were expected to suffer in a group alongside Spain, hosts South Africa and Oceania champs New Zealand.

I have been all over the world, and I can say this: situations are different from place to place, but football is the same.

Bora Milutinovic

“The whole time in Doha I told the players to do their best for their home,” said Milutinovic, still remembered by Partizan Belgrade fans as an elegant midfield creator. “I wanted them to show the pride they have in their home and the love for their people. I had to raise them up and to make them ready in a short space of time.”

Milutinovic’s teams are historically built on belief rather than complex tactics. Getting numbers behind the ball, staying compact, knowing when to break – these are all important factors. But more important is the feeling that whatever the team, they can do it. “That’s what those weeks in Doha were for. To get ourselves like one. Those weeks were a happy time. We worked hard, but it was a very human moment.” 

Victory in defeat
The fans in South Africa took Iraq to their hearts even after the Gulf side earned a goalless draw against their beloved Bafana Bafana in the Johannesburg opener. The result was followed up by a slim 1-0 loss to Spain that had Milutinovic near tears at the final whistle. But they weren’t tears of sadness or woe, but of pride and joy.

“That loss to Spain was one of my proudest moments in coaching,” said the man whose career in the technical area spans 40 years and five different continents. “I was smiling from ear to ear after the game,” said Milutinovic. “Journalists came up to me and asked, 'Bora, how can you be smiling after losing the game?' For me, it was special because Spain were the best team in the world. I saw it this way: Spain scored a goal and we didn’t. So Spain won, but we did not lose.”

Needing a win to reach the semi-finals, another goalless draw in their third group game sent the Iraqis out. In the record books, it’s just another first-round exit. But for those who were there, and back home in Baghdad, it was a moment of pride for a nation very clearly about more than war. His three games in charge of Iraq’s national team stand out to the romantic Milutinovic as: “One of the great honours of my career.”