- ‘There is nothing like the World Cup,’ said Bora Milutinovic
- The Serb led Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Nigeria and China PR in it
- He was the first coach to take four nations past the first round
Talk to Bora Milutinovic for one hour, or even one minute, and you’ll learn quickly about his passion for the people of the world and the game they hold most dear. "It’s called the world’s game for a reason and my World Cup record is more than a record to me," the Serbian told FIFA.com about taking five different national teams from three different continents to consecutive FIFA World Cups™ – a record unlikely ever to fall. "This is my life and my great honour as a human being."
Bora, born Velibor Milutinovic, developed a passion for football early in life in the former Yugoslavia. In the city of Bajina Basta, in the western portion of modern-day Serbia, he was orphaned and left to go it alone in the post World War II chaos. He developed into a central midfielder of grace, known for his ability to control a game during his six years with Partizan Belgrade in the early 1960s. Soon, a wanderlust took over Bora’s life. When he hung up his playing boots in 1976, he had swapped clubs seven times in ten years and moved from Yugoslavia to Switzerland to France and, eventually, Mexico. The wanderlust hasn’t released him to this day.
His reputation as a tactician whose brand travelled well, without spoiling, first developed in Mexico and a five-year coaching stretch with UNAM Pumas in the late 1970s and early '80s. It led to his first World Cup gig. As coach of Mexico’s national team, it was Bora’s job to contend with the huge and unrealistic expectations as El Tri hosted the World Cup for the second time in 1986.
In his side was a global superstar, Hugo Sanchez, and in the stands at the Azteca were fans who, despite a lack of success beyond the CONCACAF zone, were expecting the world to be delivered to them by this wandering football romantic with a knack for mastering foreign tongues. He didn’t deliver the world, but after showing a firm hand and selecting a team few in Mexico saw virtue in, he led them to the quarter-finals, where they lost out only on penalties to eventual runners-up West Germany. It was the farthest Mexico had ever gone in a World Cup.
At Italy 1990, Milutinovic’s charge was to keep Costa Rica – then unknown minnows from the backwaters of CONCACAF – from embarrassing themselves under the bright lights of the big stage. He did that and then some, fostering a great bond with the squad despite only having 90 days to prepare before the tournament. Wins over Scotland and Sweden saw the Los Ticos into the knockout rounds, an achievement beyond expectations back home.
That performance caught the attention of big neighbours to the north, USA, and Milutinovic was handed the reins of a side that had only just returned to the World Cup in 1990 after a 40-year stretch in the wilderness. The local press dubbed him 'The Miracle Worker' but there was little expected of the host side at the first World Cup organised in USA – aside from a big, glitzy party. Bora built a team capable of competing. And when they got to the second round, with a famous win over Colombia (a first victory for USA at the World Cup in 50 years) it was considered a huge feat.
The legend of Bora was building. He wasn’t afraid to cut loose old sacred cows. He ruled with an iron fist. Here was a man who could squeeze blood from a stone. He wouldn’t just get you to the World Cup; he’d get you to the knockout stages – worth its weight in gold for many nations of the world. Milutinovic repeated the act in 1998, where he led a star-studded Nigeria to a first-place finish in their group that included a win over Spain, before going out at the first hurdle against Denmark in the knockout round.
The Serb’s final coaching foray at the World Cup was with debutants China PR in 2002. But, even for him – the man with the golden hand – it was a road too far to get the Asians into the knockout stages. Even still, he remains a hero in Chinese football circles for being the only man to bring the world’s most populous nation to the footballing mountaintop. There is even a statue of Milutinovic in Liaoning Province, surveying the landscape like a guardian.
"For me it all blends together into one great honour and one great experience that I can never forget. From Mexico to China, my memories are so deep and meaningful. There were always differences between the jobs and the different countries. The problems that players faced in Costa Rica in 1990 were not the same as the players faced in 2002 in China or in Nigeria when I was there. But the beauty of football is that it is the same – in a very meaningful way – all over the world. The game, for me and in my heart, is the same no matter where you go.
"I’ve coached everywhere! Football is the same everywhere, but the challenges to the players are different from place to place and time to time. But this I can say: when you have them on the field and you are the coach – the eyes are the same and what they try to do is the same. In that way, football is football everywhere.
"The first job, whether it’s the USA or Mexico, is to get the team confident. First you have to get them to believe. This was difficult in places like the USA and Mexico in those years, and Costa Rica and China too. It was my job to get the players to believe, and when the players believed then they would play like they believed and the people in the country, in the stands, would believe too. It was all part of a process that began with instilling a sense of belief in players. This is the ultimate challenge for a national team coach.
"When I am coaching in a country I feel almost like I become a citizen of that country. This was the same in Mexico and Nigeria and even China. I look closely at the traits of the people and what moves them and I try to respond to these things. Football is a lot more than just a ball and 22 guys running around a pitch, especially, at the international level. It’s about dreams and pride and a lot of different and important factors.
"But for me there is nothing like the World Cup. To bring a team to the ultimate – to that level – there’s no feeling like it in the world. Sometimes I think about it - I think about having brought so many teams to the World Cup, and just to have been involved in so many World Cups – and I can hardly even believe it. To me, it’s still a dream. It will always be a dream and I will always be grateful to have lived it."