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WORLD CUP '94: 35 DAYS AND COUNTING : Bora! Bora! Bora? : Milutinovic Enjoyed World Cup Success With Mexico and Costa Rica, but the United States Might Be His Biggest Challenge

May 13, 1994|JULIE CART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It can be anywhere--Albuquerque or Yemen. It can be in Buenos Aires or San Francisco. At a hotel or on a soccer field. It is always a crowd. Sometimes a throng.

They seek him. They are Serbian, Czech, Romanian. . . . They are from Guadalajara or San Salvador or San Jose. Some are sycophants, some are fans.

The object of their desire is Velibor Milutinovic. Bora, the coach of the U.S. World Cup team. Often it's a phone call, but it might also be a note pressed into the hand of someone else to be passed on. If he's approached in person, he might stop and sign an autograph. Or he might select one of five languages and chat briefly. He might shake a hand, kiss a child.

He might linger, but he won't stay. He must always move. Away from Yugoslavia and the memories of World War II, which left him an orphan. Away from the soccer clubs that he says have cheated him. Always moving to the next place, which is sure to be better.

He is always optimistic, but wary.

*

Milutinovic was born in Bajina Basta, in Yugoslavia's Serbian republic, but didn't live there long. The war changed that. First his father and then his mother were killed fighting the Nazis, and he and his sister and four brothers were sent to live with an aunt in Bor, about 30 miles from the borders of Romania and Bulgaria. The loss was deeply felt and long held. Even now, with his facility for languages, Milutinovic refuses to learn or speak German.

His aunt was a strict disciplinarian, which made life difficult for a hyperkinetic youngster. School was important to his aunt, but soccer was important to Bora. At 15, Milutinovic had finished the schooling offered in the small town and with his brothers went to live in Belgrade.

Milutinovic thought this new arrangement would be a bonanza--he and his brothers would play soccer all day and forget about school. But Milos Milutinovic, one of Yugoslavia's greatest players, was far more strict than his aunt had been. The new rules: No soccer until school and schoolwork were finished.

But soccer was Bora's destiny. Milos and Milorad were already spectacular soccer players and able to judge their younger brother's talent. As he improved, they acquiesced and soccer became the focus of family life. The three were on the Yugoslav national team at the same time, and the Milutinovic name became famous in Europe.

Bora was a midfielder with Belgrade for 10 years, four on the youth team and six with the first team. He played on the Yugoslav Olympic team in 1964. Two years later, Milutinovic had a chance to play in Switzerland. He took it. And he went back to his homeland only once.

His second life began on the road. After Switzerland, Milutinovic played in Monaco, France, coached in Argentina and, finally, Mexico. In Mexico City, Milutinovic found his heart.

"Serbians and Mexicans are the same," he said. "It's the same feeling and atmosphere. I am more Mexican than Yugoslav. I've lived in Mexico for 19 years. In Belgrade, I had no identification with anything. In Mexico, I like the people."

His plan called for him to stay for two years. Milutinovic's first wife, a Yugoslav, didn't care for Mexico and left. They divorced. Milutinovic then met the sister of a teammate and they married. He and Mari Carmen have a daughter, Darinka, who is named after Milutinovic's mother.

Mexico became home. For the first time, Milutinovic put down roots. His playing career evolved into a coaching career and worldwide fame.

*

The idea of the United States scouring the world to find a coach for its national soccer team displeased many coaches in the United States.

"I had coaches in our own federation who thought I had sold out the coaching program in the United States," said Hank Steinbrecher, general secretary of the U.S. Soccer Federation, who conducted the job interviews.

But American coaches had not proved their worth on the international stage. The United States, for instance, lost all three games in the 1990 World Cup finals under Bob Gansler, who had never even been to the World Cup as a spectator.

When the USSF's search began in 1991, the emphasis was not so much on experience--plenty of candidates had that--but on finding a coach who could squeeze the last drop of potential out of a lightly regarded team. Milutinovic's name came up again and again. He had coached first Mexico, then Costa Rica to surprising World Cup success.

German Coach Franz Beckenbauer told the USSF that Milutinovic was the only person who could do the job.

"Beckenbauer said, 'In order to coach in the United States, you need a very special human being. Bora can do the job for you. He's the only guy you should hire,' " Steinbrecher said.

Steinbrecher visited Milutinovic at his home in Mexico City and on the flight back said to himself, "This is our man."

Milutinovic sometimes comes across as scatterbrained and disorganized, but he showed Steinbrecher detailed records of World Cup preparations from 1986 and 1990.

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