Soccer's miracle-worker gets to work on U.S. team Milutinovic sees new type of challenge

October 15, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

WASHINGTON -- Bora Milutinovic looks and acts like some daffy college professor killing time between lectures. His brown, shaggy hair flies out in every direction, and his thick, brown-rimmed glasses are perched crookedly on the bridge of his nose.

He enters a room speaking bits of English, Spanish and Serbo-Croatian. Before you know it, he produces a putter and is sending golf balls bouncing along the carpet.

Then he is shaking hands with someone who, within 15 minutes, will be his new best friend. Milutinovic good-naturedly pokes the man in the ribs and chuckles over the punch line of a joke. This 46-year-old expatriate from Yugoslavia wants to talk sports and politics and America.

Why, for example, is President Bush considered unbeatable in 1992, Milutinovic asks. Explanations are offered. Finally, someone tells Milutinovic that the United States may have a better chance of winning soccer's World Cup in 1994 than the Democrats have of recapturing the White House in 1992. The smile vanishes from Milutinovic's face. Slowly, he shakes his head sideways.

"I see," he said. "I see."

Since being named the U.S. national team soccer coach last March, Milutinovic has been on a non-stop crusade to get his team and its country prepared to play host to the 1994 World Cup. He is preaching to the unconverted. Soccer may be the world's game, but in the United States, it's the "Rocky Horror Picture Show" of sport, a cult where the crowds and characters rarely change.

The U.S. national team is in the midst of a four-year campaign to the 1994 World Cup, traveling the globe in search of new fans, new players and a new style. The tent show hits Washington on Saturday at 4 p.m., when the United States meets North Korea at RFK Stadium.

"America is unique in everything," Milutinovic said. "It is a special country. But you don't have many traditions."

Milutinovic is supposed to change the country's perception of soccer. When he was introduced as the team's coach earlier this year, he could speak four languages. However, he couldn't answer questions in English. But Milutinovic is learning the language, expanding his vocabulary and spicing his conversation with words like joy, freedom, and triumph.

"Soccer is not to speak," he said. "It is to show."

By that standard, the United States still is in the baby-talk stage. After qualifying for the World Cup for the first time in 40 years, the United States was embarrassed in the 1990 tournament in Italy, finishing winless and scoreless in three games. Instead of plodding along under Bob Gansler, a dour coach who rarely communicated with his young players, the U.S. Soccer Federation decided to rebuild its national program. With a bye into the 1994 tournament providing the time necessary to rebuild, Milutinovic became the obvious choice to run the team. He is a man, after all, accustomed to overhauling third-rate soccer powers. Some have even called him a "miracle worker."

Such talk makes Milutinovic cringe. He has experienced soccer around the world, learning the game kicking rolled-up socks on the streets of his hometown in Bajina Basta in Serbia, following his older brothers to the Partizan Belgrade club and extending his career overseas, bouncing from teams in France, Monaco and Switzerland.

He finally settled in Mexico in 1972, playing for the Pumas for five years before becoming the team's coach in 1977. Always known as a smart, tactical midfielder, Milutinovic easily transferred his talents from the field to the bench.

"If you have spirit, you have a chance to win," he said. "If you have discipline, you have a chance to win. The coaching needs to be simple. You don't have to make a big science out of the sport."

If given his choice, he'd rather have some Michael Jordan in soccer cleats lead his team to a championship. Instead, he is bound to have to work and sweat and goad a group of overachievers into attempting to perform improbable feats in front of a home crowd.

"For the Chicago Bulls, it is very easy to be a coach," he said. "You come. You see. You win. You go home. No problem. That is what I would like."

Mexico, jittery about playing host to the 1986 World Cup, brought in Milutinovic to polish its national team. Only weeks after an earthquake devastated Mexico City, Milutinovic and his players emerged as national heroes. Mexico won three straight games and came within a penalty-kick shootout of beating West Germany to advance to the semifinals.

Two months before the 1990 World Cup, Milutinovic was hired by Costa Rica. He made six lineup changes and guided the team into the second round.

"It is difficult to tell you what the World Cup is like," he said. "It is either happiness or tragedy. Costa Rica is a country of 3 million people, and when we came home in 1990, 2 million people welcomed us. Here, that would be impossible. But we shall see."

He offers no predictions about 1994. For now, he says, he is looking for 18 star players. Give him the players, and he will build the team.

"For us, it will be very important to be competitive," he said. "It is important to prove to the world that the American people have the capacity to play soccer."

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