Piscataway, N.J. -- Bora Milutinovic: fraud or miracle worker?
America begins to get an answer Saturday when the United States opens its World Cup '94 competition against Switzerland in Pontiac, Mich.
"This has been great, coaching U.S., it's a great opportunity," said Milutinovic, the Serbian-born U.S. soccer coach in the third and final year of a contract worth $1.3 million. "But if you think I need to win, you will lose."
"In time, you will understand," said Milutinovic, smiling.
Milutinovic, pronounced "mill-a-TIN-o-vich" though everyone calls him Bora, is always smiling and on the go. He takes phone calls in restaurants and gives media interviews on the team bus. Want an autograph? No problem.
One day Milutinovic is a rising midfielder in Belgrade, the next day he is playing in France, or Switzerland or Mexico. One year he is a successful club coach in Mexico, and the next year he's coaching Costa Rica or the United States at the team's $3.3 million training facility in Mission Viejo, Calif.
Milutinovic is affable and charming. He starts every sentence with either "my friend" or "for example." He's got soft eyes, a warm smile and has a bad hair day every day. The fifth Beatle.
Milutinovic says he is 49, but the U.S. press guide puts him at 50. An official 1990 World Cup program lists him at 51 back then, which would make him 55 now.
That's another Bora trait, evasiveness. Milutinovic speaks five languages fluidly, but doesn't answer tough questions completely in any of them.
It's all part of the package.
"Bora is a very evasive guy when it comes to giving out information that he wants to keep close to him," said Hank Steinbrecher, executive director of the U.S. Soccer Federation. "Bora does the sidestep better than anybody. He has a unique charm. I don't want to squelch it. He's generated a lot of interest."
But it's more than just about Milutinovic.
It's about a coach charged with narrowing the gap between soccer in this country compared to the passionate level it's played in the rest of the world. It's about winning one game and advancing past the first round for the first time since 1930. And it's about a possible soccer boom if the U.S. team does well.
"Obviously, we knew coming in that Bora was going to have his hands full," said U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, whose team faces the possibility of being the first host team not to advance past the opening round. "But Bora has the reputation as a miracle worker because of what he did with Mexico and Costa Rica."
In the 1986 World Cup, as the first non-Mexican to coach Mexico's national team, Milutinovic amazingly got the host Mexicans into the quarterfinals. It brought him world fame.
He added to his legend in 1990 when he was hired as coach of World Cup qualifier Costa Rica just 90 days before the games. He cut the captain and six other starters. Costa Rica managed to beat Scotland and Sweden and lost to Brazil, 1-0, before getting swamped by Czechoslovakia, 4-1, in the second round.
But with the publicity came criticism. Milutinovic is called "lucky" because he is the first to coach three World Cup teams without having had to actually qualify any of them. He also has the reputation of being a soccer nomad, traveling anywhere for a paycheck.
"I like to be on the road. People call me a Gypsy. But I like it. It is a chance for new things. To learn a new language. It is good," said Milutinovic. "We must remember that I was not the one to call the U.S., they called me first. Will I move again? Maybe. Maybe not."
Steinbrecher said: "From a traditional American management perspective, Bora is difficult. He'll change his direction, he'll change his mind. He's like a sly fox. But Bora and I understand each other. I think the man is a genius."
He has his critics
Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner says Milutinovic does things "illogically," especially after cutting experienced defenders John Doyle and Desmond Armstrong and keeping inexperienced defenders Mike Lapper and Alexi Lalas. Gardner also says that Milutinovic has Latin favorites on the team.
Former forward Peter Vermes, after he was cut, said the two-a-day practices had run the U.S. team into the ground.
Vermes, who will be an ESPN analyst this summer, says Milutinovic has gotten a free ride from criticism, that if the U.S. team bows out in the first round, the world probably will say that not even the great Bora could do anything with those Americans.
Several other U.S. players have had trouble figuring out Milutinovic.
"We have to figure out if we're playing four or five in the back," said U.S. goalie Tony Meola. "He hasn't told us yet. At this point, we just have to have faith in Bora, that what he is doing is the right thing.
"Bora was never easy to read. He's given everyone a mystery to figure out since Day One. Where they're playing, if they're playing, are you on the team? That has not changed."