See, there's a method to mad Bora

June 24, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

MISSION VIEJO, CALIF — MISSION VIEJO, Calif. -- There was only one reason to think that the United States might amount to anything more than round-robin fodder at the World Cup: The track record of coach Bora Milutinovic, who had twice before turned lightly regarded teams into Cup successes.

The U.S. team appeared to have little going for it otherwise. A shortage of proven talent and experience. A lack of confidence. No history of Cup success. And despite his record, Bora, as everyone calls him, was cutting a less than reassuring figure as the Cup approached. To say the least.

People thought he was crackers.

Of course, it is impossible for him not to make that kind of impression. He is scattered, evasive, idiosyncratic. He lies about his age, which is somewhere between 49 and 54. He sets his watch 15 minutes ahead of time because Vince Lombardi, of all people, did. He leaves his hair blown forward around his face, as if he has just sat backward on a motorcycle going 50 mph. He is a mess.

More to the point, his team was in disarray leading up to the Cup. He rarely used the same lineup twice. He didn't even decide on a roster until early this month. He was vague about tactics and personnel. He babbled in five languages and broken English. "A lot of times I have no idea what he is doing," defender Alexi Lalas said earlier this year.

When the team won only five of 19 practice matches before the Cup, skepticism bloomed. The Great Debate of U.S. soccer -- is Bora a miracle worker or a nutty professor? -- was not pointing to a pleasant conclusion.

"I think he has no idea," said Peter Vermes, a member of the 1990 U.S. Cup team, after Bora cut him.

The only cause for optimism was Bora's record. A Serbian soccer vagabond who had played in Yugoslavia, Switzerland, Monaco and France, and coached in Argentina and Mexico, he coached Mexico's national team to the quarterfinals of the 1986 Cup. Four years ago, he took over tiny Costa Rica after it had qualified for the Cup, cut the team captain and six starters, and advanced to the second round with two wins.

Making a something out of the nothing that was U.S. soccer was a greater challenge than the other two combined. But Bora never stopped smiling and babbling, even when things got tense and he was criticized. He never said he was in trouble. He just said, in essence, we'll see.

Sure enough, we did.

A day after the U.S. surprised Colombia to win a Cup game for the first time in 44 years and establish itself as a legitimate international team, the sorting out of the credit was simple. Bora deserved it.

One of soccer's beauties is that it is a players' game, that, unlike college basketball and pro football, the coaches aren't kingmakers. But there are exceptions, and this is one of them.

What has Bora done? A better question is: What hasn't he done?

Replacing a coach who had foolishly tried to win with youth and enthusiasm four years ago, Bora effectively professionalized the operation, bringing in more players with European experience and businesslike attitudes.

He took his players all over the world for games, plugged them into soccer's global network, taught them that they weren't outsiders, that they could compete. He changed their attitude, gave them confidence.

"It takes a huge leap of faith, because a lot of times with him you're totally blind about what's going on," Lalas said yesterday, "but we just said, 'OK, he's been there and we haven't, so we better do what he says.' "

It turns out he was not wrong to replace such Cup veterans as Vermes, Bruce Murray and Desmond Armstrong.

It turns out he was not wrong to keep insisting that the disappointing pre-Cup results were irrelevant, that he was just developing players.

It turns out his players could indeed adapt to his Latin-influenced style, with its emphasis on short passes. It turns out, after all the skepticism, that there was substance behind his bizarre style.

Just look at the scoreboard.

All of the pieces have come together just when they were supposed to, when it matters, in the Cup. The U.S. is playing at a level it has never come close to reaching before. To anyone who has followed the team, the Colombia game was an astonishment out of nowhere, the players were dangerous and creative instead of limited and plodding. They were a real World Cup team.

"A lot of people thought Bora didn't know what he was doing," Lalas said, smiling, "but they do now."

Yes, they do. In 90 minutes, the U.S. validated three years of Bora's impact. And no matter what happens in the rest of the Cup, even if the U.S. team loses to Romania on Sunday and gets whacked in the second round, the results are in on this one. Bora has succeeded. Soccer has registered a blip on the American sports radar. Bora has turned the nothing into a something. Just don't ask him how he did it.

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