Monday, November 2, 2009

Another World Cup without Bora?

Bora. As in Bora Milutinovic.

For five consecutive World Cups (1986-2002), our favorite Serbian/Mexican/citizen of the world coached somebody in the finals. And never the same somebody.

And four of those times (Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the U.S. in 1994, Nigeria in 1998), he got his team into the knockout round of the World Cup. Which is no small feat. Well, actually, it's an unparalleled feat. No one has taken three different sides to the knockout rounds, let alone four.

So, here we have the man with the best track record of wringing something out of teams (including two quarterfinal appearances) in environments as vastly different as the U.S., Nigeria and Mexico ... and seven months ahead of the World Cup ... he doesn't have a job.

I don't get this. Why isn't Bora Milutinovic getting somebody ready to spring a 2010 South Africa surprise?

I dealt with him, a lot, back in the early 1990s. I was covering the national team during the run-up to the 1994 World Cup, which meant I saw a lot of Bora and heard a lot of his fractured English. English being, to be fair, no more than his fourth-best language (behind Serbian, Spanish and Italian).

I remember interviewing him for a story in 1991, shortly after he had taken over the U.S. team. He let me drive him from practice at Denver's Mile High Stadium to the team hotel, a day or so before a friendly with Uruguay, and we talked ... though it was hard to take notes while driving.

This is a guy who should, absolutely, write an autobiograpy. The things he has seen and the places he has been ... from the day of his birth (during World War II Yugoslavia, a very rough place) to his stints running this, that and the other national team.

I have a sneaking suspicions a bunch of his relatives died at the hands of other Balkan ethnic groups, during World War II. Maybe both of his parents, actually. In that Denver conversation, I asked him about his languages. And I mentioned "Serbo-Croation" -- which was what the tongue was commonly called, before Yugoslavia completely fell apart. And Bora said, "No. Serb." So, yes, I think he may have some issues with Croats ... though 99.9 percent of the time he alleges to love all mankind, and maybe he pretty much does.

Ok, he was a bit of a phony, in what struck me as more of a Mexican than Serbian way. (But it could be Serbian, too; I don't know Serbia like I know Mexico.) A backslapper and a guy who tossed around a far from convincing (but still emphatic) "hello my friend!" when he couldn't come up with your name, which was often. There were times, more than a few, when I wondered why the United States had a coach who could barely communicate with his players, never mind journalists.

But the man could coach. He seems to have an ability to almost immediately size up a team's strengths and weaknesses, and go about emphasizing the former and hiding the latter.

He has been described as being a defense-first kind of guy, and a bit stodgy and, perhaps, now a bit old-fashioned, at age 65 ... but anyone who saw him with his last three World Cup teams (the Americans, Nigerians and Chinese) recognized that he did what he had to do to give those teams a chance to win.

The fact that he got the U.S. to the second round, in 1994, with players from a country with no professional league worthy of the name and only a handful of guys who had played overseas, was nearly miraculous. (The own goal by Colombia in the 2-1 victory at the Rose Bowl helped.) Nigeria had some players, but that was the first and only time it has been in the final 16. And then China ... OK, the Chinese didn't win a game ... or tie a game ... or score a goal ... at Japan/Korea 2002 ... but getting that motley crew into the 2002 World Cup was a feat that hasn't been managed since.

Anyway, this is a guy who can adapt to anything. Who can coach anywhere. We most recently saw him leading Iraq at the Confederations Cup. Where he actually had Iraq with a shot at advancing up till the final match of group play.

But now ... he does nothing. (Unless he's somehow still on Iraq's payroll, and I don't think he is.)

He was mentioned as a candidate for the South Africa job, the moment there it was open. Indeed, two of his four second-round jobs came with host teams -- Mexico in 1986, and the U.S> in 1994. Maybe he has some special talent for whipping together teams that don't "enjoy" the rigors of qualifying.

I think the guy has something left. He always has been lean and active and seemingly full of joie de vivre (he remains me of USC football coach Pete Carroll, actually) ... but he can't get at South Africa?

It's not too late. Someone who hires Bora in the next month can get six solid months of him before South Africa 2010, and have more than a decent shot of advancing. And I don't care if you're Honduras or either of the Koreas. Bora could take you as far as you could go.

He absolutely would make Argentina better than Diego Maradona will manage. I would rather have Bora than Carlos Alberta Parreira, actually. And, well, fill in the blanks.

Bora is being left behind, it seems. Which is too bad. I think he had another couple of World Cup shockers left in him.
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