Bora and Iraq, the perfect match
It would be hard to find a better-loved figure in the world of football than Bora Milutinovic. Born in Serbia but now a nationalised Mexican, he has coached a host of national and club sides across four continents and invariably enjoyed success wherever he has gone. His vast coaching knowledge and irrepressible enthusiasm have enabled him to quickly adapt to playing styles and cultures in country's as diverse as Costa Rica and China.
Now, though, the charismatic coach is embarking on a new challenge - that of guiding Iraq's bid for glory at next month's FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa. And to this end he has travelled with his new charges to the heart of the Middle East where, after several weeks training, he shared his early impressions with FIFA.com.
Though only recently acquainted with his latest squad of players, Milutinovic appears happier than ever, having throw himself into the role with customary enthusiasm and commitment. "I feel like a little kid. I'm enjoying every moment with the Iraqi people, the players and the fans. For me it's an honour to coach this team."
The Asian champions have set up their training camp at Aspire in Doha, Qatar, the country where many of the squad members play their domestic football. As far as Milutinovic is concerned, they could not have gathered in a better place. "When you're playing in such an important competition and you're representing your continent, you need to go with maximum ambition. That's why we've been training and preparing in this stunning corner of the world. It's a wonderful setting with impressive facilities, and I'm sure that this can only inspire us."
Asked what he felt the team could achieve and how he found the side on taking over, the 64-year-old replied, "Better than I'd expected. With all the overseas players, I've no doubt but that we'll be a competitive team. I need to spend more time in charge to have my complete side, but given the atmosphere in the group and the capability of the players, I'm sure the result will be a good one."
A little-known fact about the veteran tactician is that he handed senior international debuts to such players as Javier Aguirre, Rafael Marquez, Alexandre Guimaraes, Alexi Lalas, Claudio Reyna and Wilson Palacios. Of course, it is a trend he hopes to continue with the Asian champions, and his assessment of the country's players is encouraging in this respect.
"They're very good technically and they're also physically strong," he says, adding, "I've been watching games from the Asian tournaments since 2002 as well as the region's World Cup qualifiers, so I had a reasonable knowledge of the players who would be here in Qatar. In addition, some of my staff have been showing me games from the Iraqi league. There is a lot of talent there."
Heart first, tactics after
With so little time to get to know the team, you might expect the coach to working full time on tactics. However, that turns out not to be the case, with Milutinovic's priorities lying elsewhere. "It won't make a huge amount of difference what tactics we use. I'm sure we're going to have a competitive side as we play with a lot of heart. Moreover, Iraqi players compete with enormous passion and emotion, and are fiercely determined. I really like how committed they are and the way the train, and I'm convinced we'll have a good chance at the tournament [in South Africa]."
The coach is well aware that the FIFA Confederations Cup will be the biggest occasion for Iraqi football in recent years, and that their passionate supporters expect a lot from their team. "I find it hard to even talk about the situation of the Iraqi people, and it saddens me to see the difficulties they have to face. I sincerely hope the country gets back on its feet again. That said, despite all the problems, there remains a great passion for sport there. The people are some of the most loyal and spirited in all of Asia. They have high hopes for us so we cannot let them down."
And so one of the most cosmopolitan coaches in the game has set his sights on adding to his litany of footballing achievements, and it's a goal he shares with all of Iraq. "You only have to look at my face in the team photos. I'm happy and so are the players. We're all enjoying ourselves. It's true I don't speak Arabic, but the language of football is universal and we speak that very well."
And with that he bids us farewell, though it is most certainly not the last we have heard from him. As the old saying goes, ‘He who laughs last, laughs loudest', and if anyone knows about laughing, it is Bora Milutinovic.