As soon as coach Bora Milutinovic's players step onto the soccer practice field at Babson College, in Boston, they start banging the ball around like kids in a schoolyard. There are no warmups, no calisthenics, no interval training. Only fun. When somebody lofts a high centering pass into the goalmouth, heads go up and, suddenly, the coach is in the middle of the pack, elbows out.
"Excuse me! Excuse me!" Milutinovic shouts as he leaps up to nod the ball past the goalkeeper. Moments later, he is running down the field, raising a triumphant fist at thousands of imaginary spectators.
It is a scene that the 46-year-old Milutinovic and the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) hope to enjoy frequently in real life during the next few years. Milutinovic, an anarchic, hyperactive, multilingual burst of energy with a magician's touch, is the new coach of the U.S. Soccer Team, and he may have the toughest job in the world of sports. In the three years before the next World Cup is held, in the U.S., he must produce a team in which the nation can take pride.
Milutinovic's playfulness makes one wonder whether he knows how daunting his task is. But he can quickly turn from make-believe soccer star to stern coach. As he runs down the field celebrating that goalmouth header, a player sneaks to the sideline for a quick pull at the water bottle. "What is this drink?" the coach shouts. "No drinks! You think you get drink in middle of game in Hamburg? In Barcelona? Wait! In five minutes we pause!"
June 30, 1991
It's more like 25 minutes, but nobody protests. And that's because the team loves its work. "The atmosphere is fantastic for playing," says Peter Vermes, the U.S. team captain and a veteran of the 1990 World Cup in Italy. "I can't wait until the next practice because Bora loves to get involved in the game."
It is apparent that Milutinovic, a native of Yugoslavia, wants his practices to resemble a pickup game on Ipanema Beach or on the back streets of Naples. The first thing he realized when he joined the team this spring was that the Americans had missed out on a fundamental part of their maturation as soccer players.
"There's a huge difference between real learning—loving and becoming part of the game—and formal team training," he says. "My boys have missed out on that learning and that love, too. Everywhere else in the world, until maybe you are 10, you play only for enjoyment with other kids. Even right up to 15 you polish individual skills on your own. Only then does team coaching come into it, only then comes hard preparation for a game. It used to be that we looked at the 20-to-23 age group for perfection. Now it's more like 27, 28....
"But mentality is big here," he says. "You don't have competition, but you are competitive. Costa Rica was good technically, but mentally not so good." Milutinovic means that the Costa Ricans, the team he coached in the 1990 World Cup, the team that beat Scotland and Sweden and lost to mighty Brazil by a goal, was lacking in willpower and determination.
On March 27, when USSF president Alan Rothenberg announced that Milutinovic would replace the dour Bob Gansler as the national team coach, it was hoped that the charismatic Bora would bring out the best in the team. Under Gansler, the U.S. had suffered three defeats and a humiliatingly early exit from the '90 World Cup. Nine months later, Gansler resigned. The appointment of Milutinovic was the most important move made by the federation since the overthrow of its old guard and Rothenberg's elevation in last August's USSF elections.
Milutinovic, who was a World War II orphan, was brought up by an aunt in the little Serbian town of Bajina Basta. His native land has traditionally been the source of some of the finest players and coaches in the world. The Milutinovic boys were no exception; when he was 17, Bora followed his older brothers Milos and Milorad to Partizan Belgrade, which is one of the great club teams of Europe.
After six years with Partizan, he continued his world tour, first in the French League—he played for Monaco, Nice and Rouen—and for FC Winterthur of Switzerland. In 1972 he joined the Universidad Autónoma de Mèxico club, the Pumas, in that country's first division.
He became the Pumas' coach in 1977, led the team to two national championships in eight years, and met a Mexican woman, Maria del Carmen Mèndez, whom he married in 1986. In 1982 he also became the coach of Mexico's national team in circumstances that parallel those he finds himself in today.
Mexico, the host of the 1986 World Cup, had dominated its region for years but was not a world soccer power. Most soccer fans figured there was no way Mexico could win the Cup, even on its own territory. Milutinovic's mandate was simply to avoid a shameful first-round exit. The Mexicans hoped that the team might do better than that, perhaps gain some dignity, or even a flash of glory, by making it to the second round of World Cup competition.
The chances, however, didn't look good. Mexico had only one star, Hugo Sànchez, whom Milutinovic rarely saw because he was playing professionally in Spain. But Milutinovic's extraordinary energy emerged in a 40-month pre-World Cup tour by the team that played 62 games on five continents. And when the World Cup started, with the country still recovering from a disastrous earthquake, the team won game after game, beating Belgium, Iraq and Bulgaria in Mexico City's Azteca Stadium.
Mexico made it to the quarterfinals, where the team met mighty West Germany in an epic game. The Mexicans held the Germans into overtime, when the home side was finally eliminated in one of those ungodly penalty shoot-outs, 4-1, to finish sixth in the Cup. But who could have predicted that Mexico would do so well? Or that after being in charge of the Costa Rica side for a mere two months, Milutinovic would propel the Ticos into the second round of the 1990 World Cup?
Even so, Hank Steinbrecher, the executive director of the USSF and one of the men responsible for selecting the coach of the national team, confesses that he had his doubts about appointing a coach whose English is limited. But what American-born coach had the skill to develop even a modestly successful World Cup team?
Players like Vermes—who, almost in desperation, had gone to Europe to develop his game and who really understands soccer's international dimension—had prayed for the appointment of someone like Milutinovic, who, according to Vermes, has already made a big difference. "When we're watching videos, he'll show you a section again and again," says Vermes. " 'What do you see here? Is it good? Is it bad? What is the problem?' He scribbles over the screen with a Magic Marker. Some hotels don't like that.
"When he started this sort of questioning, everybody was tentative, afraid to commit himself. 'Hey, I may be wrong,' a player thinks, maybe with fear. A few guys laugh, whatever. Milutinovic says, 'Hey, no laughing. Hey, we are learning.'
"And nobody laughs anymore. Everybody is thinking. He's looking for guys who want to work and fight and win. He is going for potential. He'll be making changes over the next two years. In 1993 he wants to make his final team and have a year with that team together, playing, playing, playing...."
The camaraderie that has been established between the coach and players becomes apparent later in the afternoon when Milutinovic and his team crowd into the Newton Soccer Club in a suburb of Boston. They've come to watch, via satellite, the European Cup final between Marseilles and Red Star Belgrade. Pushing his way along the rows of metal chairs, a handful of dollar bills in his hands, making book and shouting, "Hey, you play or not play?" is Milutinovic.
"I play for Partizan, but now I am for Red Star," he announces. The game goes to a penalty shoot-out. "He not score!" Milutinovic forecasts jubilantly. Sure enough, an unhappy Marseilles player fires straight at the Yugoslav goalie. Milutinovic's face splits in a grin. Suddenly, you realize the greatest gift Milutinovic has to offer the U.S.: For a couple of hours this shabby little club has become part of the world community of soccer. Maybe, just maybe, the new U.S. coach can transform a whole nation.
Later, he gets serious again, contemplating the task he has taken on. "I will look at a minimum of 50 or 60 players in the next two years," he says. "I will look in Europe. I will look at colleges, but I will also look at the ethnic leagues. I need many players. I need to be patient."
So far, whatever Milutinovic has brought to the team seems to be working. On June 1, the U.S. tied a tough Republic of Ireland team 1-1, and on June 16 it tied AC Milan 1-1 in Chicago, giving the Americans under Milutinovic a 1-1-3 record against world-class powers from Uruguay, Argentina, Ireland and Italy. But even for a magician, the road to '94 is apt to be a long, hard one.