If nothing else, football in 2021 will be remembered as historic. Covid-19 postponed most of 2020’s major events, so having barely digested the European Championship and Copa America, a record turnaround put us hurtling towards one of the most controversial tournaments ever.
Any internet search reveals ‘2022 World Cup controversies’ documenting issues from the treatment and deaths of migrant workers, to the heat, and rights of the LGBT+ community. To convince us that everything would be okay, the usual slick marketing campaign was put in overdrive and an army of ‘advisors’ and ‘ambassadors’ assembled. They included World Cup winner Xavi who’s been involved with Qatari football since 2015 and, for less-obvious reasons, Ali Al-Habsi and Ronald De Boer. The advisors were mostly a collection of faceless suits, with one exception. Immersed in the quagmire of corporate nonsense that surrounds these big events was an ex-manager who holds one of the most unique records in world football.
Velibor ‘Bora’ Milutinović is a Serbian born ex-player and coach who from 1986 until 2002 managed five different countries at five consecutive World Cups. In addition, he’s also the first manager to take four teams beyond the first round.
The run started with Mexico in 1986 and concluded with China in 2002, with Costa Rica, USA, and Nigeria in between. “I don’t know whether I’m a globetrotter or not,” he told The Coaches’ Voice. “What’s certainly true is that Serbians are nomads by nature.”
Bora moved a lot during his career, something which began from a young age. Born in 1944 in Bajina Bašta, Serbia, as World War II still raged, his father was killed fighting the Nazis and his mother died of tuberculosis soon after the conflict. While a toddler, he went to live with an aunt over 250 kilometres away in the city of Bor along with brothers Milorad and Milos. His aunt was said to be strict on the three boys and prioritised education over football. At 15, Bora graduated from school and moved to Belgrade – where his brothers already lived.
The precocious teenager might have thought this the opportunity to ignore his studies but Miloš turned out to be a harder taskmaster than their older relative. The three siblings all went on to have esteemed footballing careers. Miloš and Milorad were both part of Yugoslavia’s 1958 World Cup squad – the former considered one of the country’s greatest ever players. Bora, while better known as a manager, had a fine playing stint, starting out with FK Partizan, with spells in France and Switzerland before finishing up at Mexico’s Pumas UNAM.
After 93 appearances between 1972 and ‘76, he took up a coaching role at Pumas before graduating to the national team in 1983. The squad consisted of eight players who’d played for Milutinović at Pumas, notably Real Madrid legend Hugo Sanchez. At their home World Cup in 1986, Mexico topped their group beating Iran in the final game 1-0 – the lead-up doubly special with Milutinović’s daughter born 24 hours before by cesarean which the Doctor recommended bringing forward. “Mr Milutinovic, with all the fuss about football, it’s better to do it the day before because everybody will be focused on the match,” the medic said.
‘El Tri’ then dispatched Bulgaria with goals from Manuel Negrete and Raúl Servín, two more from the Pumas production line. Ultimately they fell in the next round on penalties to the West Germany of Matthäus and Rummenigge. The quarter-final appearance is still Mexico’s joint best performance at a World Cup, subsequently failing to go beyond the last 16 in seven attempts.
If his Mexican adventure was a gradual building process, Bora’s Costa Rican chapter was the opposite. He was parachuted in at the 11th hour to take over from Marvin Rodríguez who’d coached the side to qualification. Rodríguez had a reputation as someone who fell out with players and in February 1990, tensions came to a head when Veteran Carlos Chaves announced his retirement after a bust-up. A few weeks later Rodríguez was sacked and replaced by Milutinović. With just 70 days to the World Cup, he set out a plan based around shape and defensive solidity. Costa Rica stunned Scotland 1-0 in the opening game and were only narrowly defeated 1-0 by Brazil in the next match, setting up a winner-takes-all tie against Sweden. Despite going a goal down, they battled back to win 2-1 and progressed. Unfortunately, Costa Rica met their match in the last 16 losing 4-1 to Czechoslovakia but history had already been cemented.
Bora was headhunted for his next role by former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Kissinger had spoken to Franz Beckenbauer about taking the USA job. The German refused but recommended his friend Milutinović. The US were hosting the 1994 World Cup and needed an experienced hand to avoid a repeat of the three defeats they suffered in 1990. American professional soccer was in its infancy and another embarrassment on the global stage would not bode well for the expansion of the game. Shortly after his appointment in 1991, US Soccer President Alan Rothenberg burdened Bora further with the tag of ‘the Miracle Worker.’
Similarly to Mexico, he had time to mould a team to his design, with three years until the first group game but Milutinović wasted no time in implementing his views, dropping record goal-scorer Bruce Murray. In a scene reminiscent of The Simpsons when Mr Burns castigated baseball player Don Mattingly’s hair style – he told Alexi Lalas to cut his famous red mane. The defender obliged and still keeps the hair in a bag as a memory of “sacrifice.” In preparation, the USA played 91 friendlies, beating the likes of Portugal and England and also won the 1991 Gold Cup. There was an effort to improve the players’ technical level. The coach wanted them to play ‘Bora ball’ and worked tirelessly on their psychology.
“He made it pretty clear that they (the opposition) put their pants on the same way we do, they put their shoes on the same way we do, and on any given day we can beat anybody,” defender Marcelo Balboa later told The Guardian.
The US navigated a tricky group, backing up a 1-1 draw against Switzerland with a famous 2-1 win over a fancied Colombia in Pasadena. A defeat to a Gheorghe Hagi-led Romania followed but the hosts had done enough to go through as one of the best third-placed teams.
Eventual champions Brazil awaited in the next round. In the lead-up to the game, news broke of the death of Colombian player Andreas Escobar. It was alleged he was murdered in part because he scored the own goal that handed the US victory. “I feel for his team. Our entire team felt the impact this morning,” Bora told the LA Times. “We feel very sad for what has happened. Sometimes, we just want to think that soccer is just a game.” John Harkes, who crossed the ball that led to the goal, added: “For me, it’s a lot harder to think good thoughts (about the goal). You’re talking about someone’s life here, you’re talking about three points in a World Cup game. There will be another World Cup in 1998 and cups will happen every four years, but for him and his family, it won’t. We’re all very sad right now.” The US played admirably but Bebeto’s goal after 72 minutes proved to be the difference. The hosts were out but the ‘miracle worker’ had led them to the last 16 for the first time since 1934.
Milutinović did not hang around. Controversially sacked in 1995, he was back on the international merry-go-round. He returned to coach Mexico and helped them qualify for the 1998 World Cup but then Nigeria came calling. The Super Eagles had a star-studded team including players such as Kanu, Jay-Jay Okocha and Sunday Oliseh. It was a different challenge for the Serb; one with expectations but not without issues. The Nigerian FA had come under some scrutiny with reports of missed payments and logistical failures when the team arrived in France. ‘’If you had Nigerian players, U.S. organisation, and Bora as coach, you have a world champion,’’ Milutinović told Soccer America.
In addition, Nigeria’s military general Sani Abacha died in the lead-up with his successor Abdulsalam Abubaker informing the squad: “The hopes of a nation rest on your shoulders in this difficult time.” Unfortunately, Nigeria couldn’t rely on U.S. organisation but wins over Spain and Bulgaria saw them top a group that also included Paraguay. It also meant Milutinović had taken four teams to the knockout phase of the World Cup, the first man to do so. Defeat to Denmark in the next round would mean, as was tradition, Bora moved on.
Another country, another continent, and another World Cup beckoned; this time China for the 2002 edition in Japan and South Korea. While they failed to get out of a group which included semi-finalists Turkey and eventual winners Brazil, qualifying itself was historic and is still China’s only appearance at the finals. Spells with Honduras, Jamaica and Iraq were less fruitful but Milutinović’s reputation has never diminished.
To add context to his accomplishments over such a considerable period; Pat Jennings, also born during World War II, played at Mexico ‘86 while the still active Zlatan Ibrahimović was in the 2002 Sweden squad. Milutinović’s adaptability to consistently achieve as a coach across different countries and with players from different eras is unrivalled. A man who started his life displaced by war became a vagabond qualifier-for-hire bringing football success to America, Asia, Africa and beyond.
Ryan Kilbane is a writer from Dublin. The Shamrock Rovers fan is a regular contributor to Póg Mo Goal, Extratime and Backpage Football. Twitter: @ryankilbane1
Image: Well Offside is an archive started by photographer Mark Leech over forty years ago with 100 years of photography from L’Equipe, and every FIFA World Cup since 1930. www.welloffside.com
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