Bora Milutinovic : The Miracle Worker

The 1986 World Cup in Mexico complete with the wave, the ‘spider’ of the Azteca Stadium, the ‘Hand of God’ goal, and much more could have been so different. Originally intended to be hosted in Colombia, the South American nation was rife with economic unrest and corruption. The Colombia football governing body admitting in 1982 that hosting the tournament would not be financially viable. In stepped Mexico, controversially chosen ahead of the United States of America in 1983 ready to host their second tournament in 16 years. The Mexican FA turned to Bora Milutinovic to improve their disappointing World Cup record, three wins in eight previous appearances and failure to qualify for the previous tournament in Spain.

Milutinovic set out a grueling pre-tournament schedule for his squad. Fifty warm-up games over three years asked questions of burn out but the hosts were based at altitude in Milutinovic’s adopted home of Mexico City where stamina would be key. Playing all three group games at the city’s Azteca Stadium, El Tri looked to galvanise the city and country with tournament dark horses Belgium up first in front of 110,000 expectant fans. With the baying home crowd and 2,000-metre altitude Mexico raced out to a two-goal lead, a towering Fernando Quirarte header followed by Hugo Sanchez with the second from a corner. The Red Devils clawed a goal back on half time but the hosts were off to a dream start with a 2-1 win. With victory against their supposed toughest opponents in the bag El Tri managed a 1-1 draw with Paraguay, Sanchez missed a penalty but a late Julio Cesar Romero goal saved the hosts blushes and kept them top of the group. World Cup debutants Iraq awaited in the final group game, Hugo Sanchez missing out through suspension which added to a far from convincing performance. A volley from Quirarte secured a 1-0 win though, the defender known as The Sheriff with his second goal of the tournament.

The country was in rapture, qualification as group winners for the round of 16 kept the hosts in Mexico City. A favourable draw against Bulgaria left fans demanding further progression. A memorable Manuel Negrete scissor kick volley from the edge of the area put El Tri into the lead on 34 minutes, a second on the hour mark from Raul Servin saw a wilting Bulgaria eliminated. Mexico had progressed to the quarter finals for the first time but had to move base camp to Monterrey where West Germany awaited.

The tie didn’t live up to the billing, Mexico striking the woodwork and having a goal chalked off the offensive highlights. After an insipid and stifling 120 minutes, both sides were reduced to ten men and a semi-final place would be decided by penalties. Two Harald Schumacher saves put their burgeoning World Cup penalty shootout record at two wins out of two and the hosts were out. Although success evaded them, Milutinovic had tempered the local expectations whilst simultaneously helping deliver their best performance in the tournament.

Costa Rica had secured their debut appearance in the World Cup of 1990. Fresh from victory in the final CONCACAF Championship the year before the Central Americans were heading to Italy as relative unknowns. A difficult draw saw El Ticos grouped with Scotland, Sweden and pre tournament favourites Brazil, still smarting from their disappointing exit in Mexico four years earlier. Despite the success in qualifying, coach Marvin Rodriguez was removed from his position three months before the tournament’s first game and replaced by Milutinovic.

Milu returned to club football after the World Cup albeit with little success, highlighted by a nine game stint at Udinese. The Costa Rican Football Federation were hoping that he could recreate the success from four years earlier but this time there would be little time for preparation. Milutinovic instantly stamped his authority on the squad, whisking them away to Italy five weeks early, and dropped six of the most popular players including the captain. Although the squad was battle hardened, having come through a tough qualifying campaign, they were swept aside in all eight warm-up games against lower league Italian opposition. Scotland were the first opponents, Andy Roxburgh’s men admitting to not having seen El Ticos in the flesh, only viewing them on video. Backed by the vast swathes of Tartan Army in Genoa the game looked like a formality for Scotland, even with the loss of Davey Cooper to injury.

A resolute first half defensive performance from the Costa Ricans saw the sides go into the break goalless. Shortly after the restart, striker Juan Cayasso got on the end of a back heel from Geovanny Jara and clipped the ball past Jim Leighton into the Scottish goal. The expected onslaught from Scotland never materialised and Costa Rica had secured their first World Cup win, not quite on a par with Cameroon’s victory over Argentina in the curtain raiser, but certainly one to catch the eye.

Moving to Turin for the next game against twice champions Brazil would be the biggest test yet. A narrow 1-0 defeat with a first half goal from Muller still left Costa Rica in a decent position in group C, a win over Sweden back in Genoa would see them through to the last 16. The mediocre Swedes had suffered defeat at the hands of Brazil and Scotland, but when Luis Gabelo Conejo could only parry a free kick into the path of Johnny Ekstrom, the Scandinavians were a goal to the good. A Roger Flores equaliser left Sweden pushing for a much-needed winner but with only three minutes to go El Ticos broke, Hernan Medford keeping his composure to slot past Thomas Ravelli. While coaching staff and players converged in celebration, Milutinovic barked out instruction, demanding concentration to see out the final minutes. Referee Zoran Petrovic blew for full time and Costa Rica were through to the last sixteen to face Czechoslovakia.

Goalkeeper Conejo missed the Czech game through injury, spending the final few minutes of the Sweden victory hobbling around his 18-yard box. A major blow, named as one of the goalkeepers of the tournament, he could only look on as his side succumbed to a 4-1 defeat in Bari. A sad end but possibly a game too far for Costa Rica, Milutinovic left his position after the tournament and El Ticos would not return to the world stage until 2002.

Some would say that the modern game stepped into the limelight the summer of 1994 when the USA hosted the World Cup. The first time that FIFA’s ultimate event was to be held in a country without a domestic league of its own. A country well versed in the hype and razzamatazz that comes with being the home of the Super Bowl and its 100 million viewers, yet still a rookie when it came to the ‘beautiful game’.

Having lost all three group games at Italia 90 under Bob Gansler, the United States Soccer Federation general secretary Hank Steinbrecher performed a root and branch operation for a new coach in 1991. Someone to get the best out of a squad plying their trade on the fringes of the professional game in Europe or at university sides, they kept coming back to one name.

Milutinovic arrived preparing for his third consecutive World Cup. With scenes reminiscent of his beginnings with Costa Rica he immediately dropped three key squad members, including all-time leading scorer Bruce Murray. Setting up a residential training complex in Southern California offering $2,500 a month contracts, the inexperienced home-based players took a leap of faith with the man the USSF president Alan Rothenberg had dubbed ‘the miracle worker’.

A gruelling schedule to get the players into tournament shape saw the squad on the road for large parts of the year, playing in the likes of Russia, Yugoslavia, and the Cayman Islands. Progress was made with friendly victories over England, Republic of Ireland and Portugal and a respectable draw against Italy. The European based players jetted in for games when club schedules allowed and by the time proceedings got under way most of the squad had accumulated over 70 caps.

The World Cup began the same day 95 million people were glued to their tv screens. OJ Simpson sat in his SUV followed by a parade of police cars along several Los Angeles freeways, the prelude to the biggest court case of the decade. The USA squad left behind their double training sessions at their Mission Viejo training base and visited the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit the night before their opening game with Switzerland. The huge jumbotron displayed footage of their training camp, the warm up games, the ups and downs of the preparations, set to an inspiring soundtrack. All put together by Milutinovic as one final message to his players.

The 106-degree temperature the next day saw the first ever indoor game of a World Cup be played. Switzerland adapting to the occasion and heat better than the hosts as they took the lead through a Georges Bregy free kick. Four years earlier heads may have dropped, but within five minutes the USMNT had got back on level terms through a free kick of their own. Eric Wynalda reaping the rewards of some secret impromptu practice after Milu’s rousing picture show the night before.

As the game ended, the relayed pitch was cutting up as some fans were passing out from heat exhaustion in the stands. One point each and the hosts were on the board, ahead of game two against South American rivals Colombia at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. The Colombians suffered a less than ideal preparation for the World Cup, rumours swirled of alleged pressure and influence from the drug cartels and Narcos back home. A crushing 3-1 defeat at the hands of Romania in the first game left them needing nothing less than a win if they were to progress. An outcome which looked less likely after 33 minutes when a John Harkes cross was diverted past his own goalkeeper by Andres Escobar, footballs most infamous own goal, one with tragic repercussions that went beyond the game of football.

The home nation had Tony Meola to thank for maintaining their lead, making a string of saves to keep Colombia at bay. This would prove vital with a second goal coming shortly after half time. The ball started at the feet of imperious defender Marcelo Balboa before being passed and switched across the pitch pulling the Colombians apart, a beautifully measured ball from Tab Ramos fell to Earnie Stewart who volleyed past the on-rushing Oscar Cordoba in the Colombian goal. A last minute consolation from Adolfo Valencia couldn’t stop the USMNT from securing their first World Cup win since 1950.

A disappointing final group game saw a defeat to Romania, Meola being beaten at his near post by Dan Petrescu. He rebounded from this mistake to keep the score at 1-0, something he put down to the man management of Milutinovic. These saves proved costly as the hosts progressed to the second round on goal difference finishing third in Group A. Brazil awaited in San Francisco, on July 4th, American Independence Day.

Harkes was suspended for the game, the influential Derby County man picking up his second yellow card of the tournament in the Romania game. Environmental lawyer Cobi Jones got his first start, lining up opposite Bebeto and Romario et al, a sign of what the USA were up against. It was the hosts who had the better start to the game with Thomas Dooley coming the closest to a goal in the first five minutes. The pendulum swung in the home nations direction when Leonardo saw red for a sickening elbow on Ramos, who suffered a fractured skull in the process. Shook by this and unable to take advantage of the numerical difference the USMNT conceded the winning goal in the 72nd minute, Bebeto with his second goal of the tournament. The American dream was over but with the help of Milutinovic the foundations had been laid and the profile of ‘soccer’ raised in the land of football.

To build on their relative success the USSF wanted to get a domestic league started and for the national team coach to take on more administrative tasks. The latter idea was shot down by Milutinovic, seeing it as an extra role that would take him away from the training pitch. By the end of 1995, he was gone but his legacy was built and the USA were now, however small, a blip on the world football radar.

The Serbian appeared in his fourth straight World Cup in 1998 with Nigeria, arguably the strongest squad he had taken to the finals. Initially, it looked as though Milu would be going to France that summer with Mexico, securing qualification during his second stint with El Tri only to be dismissed one month later. He had become Nigeria’s fourth coach in 20 months, gaining the approval from the country’s de facto president General Sani Abacha.

The build up to the finals in France were far from ideal, Abacha died the month before with Abdusalam Abubakar replacing him as government leader. There was little support from the Nigerian football federation but massive expectations from Abubakar, the semi-finals seen as a realistic target for the Super Eagles. A raft of injuries to key players and rumours of a fall out with inform striker Victor Ikpeba did nothing to temper expectations. A resounding 5-1 defeat to the Netherlands in a warm up game had fans calling for Milutinovic’s head who was seemingly oblivious to this at the isolated squad base some 15 miles from civilisation in the forests of France.

A squad boasting Jay-Jay Okocha, Taribo West, Daniel Amokachi, Rashidi Yekini and Nwankwo Kanu stunned Spain in the opening group game with a 3-2 victory. A glorious 25-yard drive from Sunday Oliseh the winning goal for the Super Eagles. Pre-tournament prima donna Ikpeba got the starts he craved and repaid the faith put in him by scoring the only goal in the second game. A 1-0 win against Bulgaria in the Parc des Princes in Paris secured qualification before the final group game. Milutinovic used the Paraguay game to rest players for the knockout round and the result was a resounding 3-1 defeat.

Any hopes that the defense would tighten up for the last 16 game against Denmark was gone in a flash with Nigeria finding themselves two goals down after 12 minutes. Unable to secure a footing in the game the Danes went further ahead just short of the hour mark with Ebbe Sand knocking a delightful Michael Laudrup chipped pass beyond Taribo West before finding the bottom corner. The game was out of reach, a fourth goal followed before Tijani Babangida restored some pride a minute later. The West Africans were heading home, Milutinovic navigating the group stage for the fourth straight World Cup but again unable to progress any further.

Milutinovic set a record in 2002 managing in his fifth World Cup, a record that would be matched eight years later by legendary Brazilian coach Carlos Alberto Parreira. His charges this time were China, appearing in their first World Cup being hosted by Japan and South Korea. Half a million fans convened in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square for an impromptu celebration chanting Milu’s name after qualification was secured following victory over Oman. This was a far cry from the beginning of his reign, where one victory out of nine friendlies left fans questioning whether his run of consecutive World Cup appearances would come to an end. When the qualifiers began the turnaround in form was impressive, qualification practically a formality, losing only one out of 14 games. Milutinovic hit hero status in China, building on this by becoming the face of rice wine and trademarking his name, banking over £2m in advertising in the process. His enigmatic personality and ‘happy soccer’ approach not immediately welcomed by the country’s media but they were soon onside seduced by his infectious charm.

Aiming for four points from a World Cup group containing Turkey, Brazil and his former side Costa Rica seemed a tall task. A squad containing almost all domestic players soon realised how far out of their depth they were when they lost 2-0 to Costa Rica in the game they were targeting as the one to win. A 4-0 demolition by eventual champions Brazil next with Turkey making it three defeats out of three and no goals scored, winning 3-0 in Seoul.

Despite being unable to repeat his previous World Cup success, Milutinovic retained hero status in China, even having a statue built in his honour in Liaoning Province. The incessant pull towards the footballing outposts continued with him acting as an advisor for the Qatar World Cup bid. His ability to rule with an iron fist wrapped in a velvet glove, imparting tactics and knowledge to players from five countries across three different continents is a testament to the man. Showing that success in football doesn’t necessarily have to be measured in trophies and silverware.