Nigeria wins, 1-0, moves into 2nd round Maligned Milutinovic sets World Cup record

June 20, 1998|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS -- Before these World Cup finals began, Bora Milutinovic was very close to losing his job for the second time in a year. Yesterday, the cosmopolitan Yugoslav became the first man to lead four different teams into the World Cup's second round.

Nigeria, Milutinovic's latest and potentially greatest project, clinched its spot yesterday with a 1-0 victory over Bulgaria that was nowhere nearly as conservative as its score.

Several hours later, after the other Group D match between Spain and Paraguay had ended in a scoreless draw, Nigeria also clinched first place in a group that was widely considered the most daunting in this event.

"For people who like the spectacular, we make it spectacular," Milutinovic said.

The Nigerians had every intention of being more spectacular than in their thrill-a-minute 3-2 victory over Spain in their first match. Daniel Amokachi, the striker who missed that match because he was still recovering from a knee injury, predicted four goals against Bulgaria. Nigeria had to settle for just one, but it was a thing of beauty.

It came in the 26th minute after Nigerian playmaker Jay-Jay Okocha took control of the ball outside the Bulgarian penalty box. After losing one defend er, he passed the ball deftly in the direction of Amokachi who, with a confident thrust of his right leg, flicked it toward the goal where longtime rival and teammate Victor Ikpeba was waiting. Ikpeba accelerated past Trifon Ivanov and knocked the ball underneath the armpit of Bulgarian goalkeeper Zdravko Zdravkov.

On paper, that sequence sounds logical, almost clinical, but what a blow-by-blow description cannot convey is the startling speed with which the Nigerian stars went about their business. After the ball had rolled into the net, Ikpeba and Amokachi locked in an embrace, their differences in the past overwhelmed by their delight in the present.

Both 25 and the sons of Nigerian army officers, their talent was spotted early and, like most of their teammates in this World Cup, both moved to Europe as teen-agers to polish their skills. But while Ikpeba experienced considerable success on the club level, the more precocious and powerful Amokachi continually blocked Ikpeba's way onto the national team. Yesterday, they started together for only the fourth time in the last four years.

With the redheaded Okocha at the controls, Nigeria pushed forward from the beginning, just as they had four years earlier when they beat the Bulgarians, 3-0, in their opening match in the 1994 World Cup. That victory hinted at a continental shift in power, but it was the Bulgarians who ended up in the semifinals in the United States and the Nigerians who lost in the second round.

The Bulgarians only made it to the United States because of what happened in Paris in November 1993, when Emil Kostadinov scored a last-minute goal to eliminate France from contention. Kostadinov was back at the Parc des Princes yesterday, along with Hristo Stoitchkov and five other members of that team, but the stadium and the French fans exacted a

measure of revenge.

Whenever one of the key Bulgarians touched the ball in the early going, he was jeered by the crowd, and despite their considerable guile and gift for counterattack, they could not find a way to put the ball past Nigeria's shaky goalkeeper, Peter Rufai.

Nigeria's final first-round match against Paraguay will be nothing more than a second-round warm-up for Milutinovic and his players, concluding a remarkable turn of events for a team in great disarray before this event began. After losing 3-0 to Yugoslavia and 5-1 to the Netherlands in friendly matches, Nigerian authorities were seriously considering firing Milutinovic and replacing him with Jo Bonfrere, the Dutchman who coached Nigeria to the Olympic gold medal in 1996.

But after the sudden death of Nigerian President Sani Abacha, Milutinovic was given a reprieve, and after Nigeria rallied twice to defeat Spain, he was given another one. "If we would have lost that game, I would have been fired," Milutinovic said this week.

Milutinovic's previous second-round appearances were with Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990 and the United States in 1994, but he has never had this sort of talent at his disposal. He only got the opportunity to coach Nigeria after Mexico fired him late last year.

"I hope this game gives Mexico some inspiration," Milutinovic said sarcastically.

Spain 0, Paraguay 0: Spain, strongly favored to reach the second round at least, stands on the brink of first-round elimination after the tie in Saint-Etienne, France.

Although the Spaniards forced Paraguay goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert to make several difficult saves, they could not score. After a 3-2 loss to Nigeria, the Spaniards have only one point, tied with Bulgaria, whom they play Wednesday.

Juan Pizzi, Luis Enrique and Raul Gonzalez couldn't find the target, and the second scoreless tie for Paraguay in the tournament clinched first place in Group D for Nigeria.

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