He is, at this very moment, the most popular coach on earth, a
man so renowned he answers to a single name--two single names.
In traditional soccer precincts Velibor Milutinovic is simply
Bora, the smiling ambassador to futbol's developing nations. In
China, where the language has no r sound, he is Milu, the
miracle worker who has led the home team, after four decades of
failure, to its first World Cup. Wherever Milu goes in China,
the adoring crowds swarm: at the Great Wall, where his ovation
at a recent rally was louder than Pele's; at training sessions,
where fans gather five-deep around the fenced-in playing field,
screaming Meee-LUUUU!; and here, on a gorgeous April night in
Kunming, Yunnan Province, a mountain-ringed city on China's
southeastern frontier, near the Laotian border.
We've come to a Brunswick bowling alley. "You don't believe
you're in China!" Bora yells as we descend an escalator into an
Alice-in-Wonderland scene, the Middle Kingdom turned Middle
America, where league night thrives and computerized scoring
screens announce the next beer frame.
By the time Bora pulls on a pair of blue-and-white bowling shoes,
two dozen admirers have flocked to our lane. When he converts a
spare, they clap wildly, and he blows theatrical kisses in the
air. Then they pounce. Two young women drape their arms around
Milu for a picture, flashing wide grins and V-for-victory signs.
Three middle-aged men, as proud and silent as Buckingham Palace
guards, pose for another. A schoolgirl in jeans scores a prized
autograph and giggles. "I love you!" she says in English and
titters some more.
Funny, only nine months ago Bora needed riot police to protect
him from a stadium full of irate fans in Shanghai. Now, says Qu
Bo, a 20-year-old national-team striker, "for the people of
China, Milu is like a god."
May 19, 2002
When China plays Costa Rica in Gwangju, South Korea, on June 4,
Bora will become the only man to have coached five countries in
the World Cup. Even more remarkable, his previous four
teams--Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in '90, the United States in
'94 and Nigeria in '98--advanced beyond the opening round. In
truth, China has no business doing the same. At week's end
Ladbroke's, the British sports book, rated China a 350-to-1 shot
to win the Cup, the longest odds in the 32-team field. (Even our
Yanks, who bickered to a last-place finish in '98, were a mere
150 to 1.) And yet, solely because of Bora, Pele has predicted
that the Chinese will be the tournament's Crouching Tiger,
Hidden Dragon and reach the second round. "Why not?" says former
U.S. midfielder Tab Ramos. "With Bora, I'd be more surprised if
they didn't make it."
What is it about him that inspires such confidence, even as he
regularly flirts with disaster? Who is this soccer shaman? With
his Beatles mop top and manic energy, Bora has been called a
combination of Richard Simmons and Yoda. As enigmatic as he is
charismatic, Bora is "the best coach I've ever played for," says
former U.S. defender Alexi Lalas, "and the most frustrating coach
I've ever played for." He is a Yugoslav-born resident of Mexico
City who has coached teams on every continent except Australia
and Antarctica (though you half expect that he could turn 11
penguins into a decent side). He speaks five languages fluently,
but fumbles for words when asked questions he doesn't like. In
China, where Bora has earned nearly $3 million in endorsements,
he happily flogs rice wine (even though he doesn't drink), a
language-learning device (even though he doesn't speak Mandarin)
and a sports drink called Ego (even though he seldom displays
one). Nobody knows for sure how old he is--estimates range from 57
to 62--and he isn't telling. "It depends, my friend, on who I am
speaking with," he says.
This much we do know: "Four times my team goes through [to the
second round]," Bora says, his greenish-brown eyes flashing. "I
don't know how we go through, but we go through. I don't know
anything, but I do everything."
In American terms his coaching style is an alloy of Phil
Jackson's profound musings ("It is better to think fast than run
fast in soccer"), John Wooden's mania for details (like the
Wizard, Bora teaches his players how to tie their shoes) and
Larry Brown's nomadic travels (though Bora's globe-trotting puts
Brown's peregrinations to shame). He keeps what he calls Lombardi
time. "You know, 15 minutes early!" Bora says, pointing to his
watch. "So many Vince Lombardi books I read. How is the name:
Green Bay P-p-p-p...?"
"Green Bay Packers!"
When Bora took the China job in January 2000, he called it "the
biggest challenge of my life," and he wasn't exaggerating. Even
today, only three Chinese players are deemed worthy of the
European leagues, none in any of the top divisions. For the first
time Bora is coaching abroad without his family--his Mexican wife,
Maria, and their 16-year-old daughter, Darinka, stayed in Mexico
City--and for the first time he is unable to speak the language of
his players. Just learning their names was a monumental task. For
one World Cup qualifier, Bora's roster included seven players
named Li: Li Tie, Li Weifeng, Li Xiaopeng, Li Ming, Li Bing, Li
Jinyu and Li Yao (not to be confused with Li Yi, who would appear
in another game, or Lily Li, the Bora intimate and Sports Weekly
writer whose book Zero Distance, an insider's account of the
team, has sold more than 300,000 copies).
Most daunting of all was China's epic history of failure in World
Cup qualifying. After six fruitless attempts the Chinese were
sure they had sealed a berth in the 1982 tournament, knowing that
New Zealand would have to beat Saudi Arabia by five goals in the
last qualifier to keep them from clinching. The Kiwis won 5-0,
then sent China packing in a one-game playoff. In '85 China
endured the indignity of being eliminated by tiny neighbor Hong
Kong, setting off Beijing's worst riots since the death of Zhou
Enlai. Four years later the Chinese came within minutes of
booking a trip to Italy, only to concede two late goals to Qatar
(Qatar!) and fall 2-1. The tally: 11 tries, 11 failures. "So many
bad memories," Chinese captain Ma Mingyu says of the drought,
during which two foreign coaches, a German and a Brit, were fired
On the other hand, as Bora already knew, soccer had caught fire
in China in a way that the game's lords always hoped it would in
the U.S. With an estimated 300 million footy fanatics, China is
the largest soccer market on the planet. It has an improving
10-team pro league, with the attendant big-league problems. (A
recent bribery scandal resulted in the arrest of one referee, and
in March officials temporarily banned games in the city of Xian
when fans set fire to stadium seats and attacked police after a
match.) When China finally clinched its World Cup berth last
October, in a 1-0 win over Oman, a half-billion viewers watched
on TV--about four times the audience for the Super Bowl. The huge,
spontaneous celebrations that followed went on through the night.
Two years ago, though, the national team's Great Leap Forward was
by no means guaranteed. "Bora had opportunities to coach four
teams on three different continents--three of the four are in the
World Cup--and he chose China," says Sunil Gulati, the U.S. Soccer
vice president and one of Bora's close friends. "[Succeeding in
China] sets him completely apart."
"My friend," Bora says, "I came for the aventura."
Dozens of kites float overhead as Bora leads the Chinese players
onto the practice field. They have set up their World Cup
training camp in Kunming, at the Hongta Sports Center, a gleaming
$58 million compound that includes the aforementioned bowling
alley, a first-class ice rink, covered tennis courts and five
immaculate soccer fields lovingly manicured by workers in straw
hats. Built two years ago by the Hongta Group, the richest
tobacco company in China, the center is home to the country's
Olympic figure skaters, ice hockey team (yes, the Chinese have
one) and soccer team. On a splendid Saturday 3,000 fans have come
to see the lads. A sign informs everyone that only 39 days remain
until the World Cup.
They're scrimmaging now. Displaying the energy and much of the
skill he had as a player for Yugoslavia's Partizan Belgrade,
Bora is darting about, firing one-touch passes, belting out
instructions in three languages.
Kuai! Kuai! Kuai!
These are his standbys: Juega (Spanish for play), kuai (Mandarin
for quick) and stop. If Bora has something detailed to explain,
he'll call over Yu Huixian, the Spanish-to-Chinese interpreter
who's almost always by his side. More often, though, Bora teaches
by demonstrating, whether it's the correct way to strike a corner
kick or to make an angled run. "If you had a world competition of
charades," says former U.S. striker Eric Wynalda, "Bora would be
in the top three."
Later, while the rest of the team cools down, Bora buttonholes
three players--Qu Bo, Li Weifeng and Fan Zhiyi--and brings them to
the small net he has set up for two-on-two games of soccer
tennis, which is exactly what it sounds like. Don't let the
backyard-barbecue vibe fool you. For Bora, a daily dose of soccer
tennis not only allows him to get closer to his players (hugs and
high fives are common currency), but it also gives him the chance
to see how they respond to tests. "He cheats a lot," says Qu,
Bora's favorite rising star. "At first I didn't understand, I
just got angry, but later I got used to it." The point: Bad calls
are part of the game. How are you going to deal with them? "For
you, soccer tennis is joking," Bora says. "For me, it's the best
thing I did all day."
But by no means the only thing. Before the team's two-a-day
training sessions Bora conducts Soccer 101 seminars, screening as
many as three hours of videotape from matches around the world.
Making like Socrates--the philosopher, not the former Brazilian
midfielder--he instructs by asking questions, a revolutionary
concept to his players. "In China's educational system we just
sit there and listen to the teacher," says Lily Li. "But when
Bora has meetings, he will point to the video and ask the
players, 'Why do these players stand here? Do you think this
player's position is good? Hey, there are all kinds of situations
in one game. How can I tell you all of them? You need to react!
If nobody answers Bora's queries, he'll simply point to a player
and say, You! "I was so nervous at first," says Qu. "It was very
different for us. But he wants us to think, not just accept
everything we're told." One classic Bora question: What is the
most important play? "He asks everybody," says Ramos. "Every new
kid on the team will be puzzled at first. They'll try all sorts
of answers, but it's so easy...."
When China hired Bora two years ago, his first order of business
was simple: schedule lots of games. "It's very difficult for them
if they don't have competition, the best teams in the world,"
Bora says. "When you play in MLS or the Chinese league, you may
lose the ball, but many times you recover it and nothing happens.
When you play against somebody like Brazil, you lose the ball and
suddenly they're in front of your goal." After competing in only
one international match in 1999, China played 26 in Bora's first
14 months. What's more, he made sure to expose his players to a
variety of styles, meeting such World Cup-quality sides as Iran,
Japan, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Sweden, the U.S., Uruguay and
China finished 1-7-2 against those teams, and even though they
were only exhibitions--friendlies, in soccer-speak--throats were
heard being cleared at Chinese Football Association headquarters
and in the sky-is-falling sports media. "Nobody believed in
Bora," says Lily, "including maybe 80 percent of the players."
But they were improving, a fact confirmed when Bora's Boys
reached the semifinals of their first big tournament, the Asian
Nations Cup, in October 2000. "It was the first time I saw the
players believing in themselves," Bora says.
As World Cup qualifying fast approached, they were learning all
sorts of new things, including the answer to Bora's riddle: What
is the most important play? "At first nobody knew," says Yu, the
interpreter. "A goal? A good pass? Defensive pressure? Bora
finally had to explain it to them." Ask a player now, and you'll
get a quick response. "Everyone knows the answer to that," Qu
says, laughing. "It's the next play."
Born in the Serbian mountain village of Bajina Basta during World
War II, Bora has been in transit ever since. A war orphan, he has
no memory of his father, Orzad, who died while fighting for the
Serbian Partizans against the Serbian Chetniks, or his mother,
Darinka, who fell victim a year later to tuberculosis. With his
sister, Milena, and two older brothers, Milos and Milorad, Bora
went to live with his aunt and uncle in Bor, a copper-mining town
30 miles from the borders with Bulgaria and Romania. "My uncle
was a breadmaker," he says, "so already you're happy. I know what
it is not to have food. But I never have this problem there."
In fact, Bora had plenty of time for games in the house of Aunt
Draga and Uncle Milan. Bora's favorites were chess, table tennis
and soccer, which he played in the street with his brothers using
a pig's bladder, blown up and stuffed inside a sock. In time all
three Milutinovic boys would join the club Partizan Belgrade and
later don the national-team jersey, an unprecedented feat in
Yugoslavia for one family. Though Bora never played in the World
Cup, as Milos and Milorad did, he set off on his own adventure,
which took him to clubs in Switzerland, France, Monaco and, in
It was there that he learned Spanish, played professionally for
UNAM Pumas, divorced his first wife, a Yugoslav, and married
Maria, one of his former teammate's sisters. When Pumas offered
him a coaching job in 1976, he took it. "I always wanted to stay
in soccer, and I felt like I knew the game," he says. When he
started at Pumas, he wanted his players to be prepared
technically, tactically, physically and mentally--in that
order--but his approach has changed over the years. These days he
values the last of those above all others. "Good spirit is much
more important than just running behind the ball," says the man
who wears a cap reading (in English) ATTITUDE IS EVERYTHING. "So
you need to make good chemistry between the players, good
ambience. When I was young, I worked much more with individuals.
Now, mostly the group."
After winning two Mexican league titles with Pumas, Bora was
hired as national-team coach for World Cup '86, in which Mexico,
as host, was guaranteed a spot. The home fans feared disaster.
Mexico hadn't even qualified for the Cup in 1982, and its record
in eight previous tournaments was 3-17-4. Bora's Boys barnstormed
the world, playing nearly 50 warmup matches, and though he was
criticized for burning out his team, the Mexicans made a
breathtaking run to the quarterfinals before bowing to powerhouse
West Germany on penalty kicks. The government awarded Bora its
highest honor given to a noncitizen, the aguila Azteca (the Aztec
Eagle)--only the third time it had been given to a sportsman--and
the Bora mystique was born.
Thus began a pattern in which Bora would take over a team, appear
to run it into the ground and then, miraculously, win when it
counted, at the World Cup. In 1990 Costa Rica hired him just two
months before the tournament, whereupon Bora infuriated fans by
dumping six popular players, including the captain, and moving
the team to Italy five weeks early. Tensions rose when the Ticos
lost all eight of their tune-up matches to low-level Italian
clubs. Once the real games started, though, Costa Rica beat
Scotland and Sweden, becoming the first Central American country
to reach the World Cup's second round.
"What are the two things kids like to see at the circus?" Bora
asks. "Clowns and magicians. The day before the game with
Scotland, I was a clown. But after the World Cup, I was magic.
The difference is we win two games. It's not important how
popular you are when you come. Much more important to be popular
when you leave."
A year later Bora accepted the U.S. job, and with it the immense
task of presenting a competitive side for the host country in
World Cup 1994. For three years he cajoled and confounded his
players. "One time I scored a goal against Jamaica, and Bora
subbed for me right afterward," Wynalda recalls. "He said, 'You
should have shot with your left foot.'" When Lalas joined the
team, Bora demanded that he cut his trademark shoulder-length red
hair. "Bora loves to test you, to see how you'll react," says
Lalas. "I was so angry, ranting and raving, 'This is America! I
am an individual!' He didn't tell any other players to cut their
hair, just me. But Bora realized that I had to look at myself,
analyze the situation and make a decision about how much I was
willing to sacrifice to play for the national team. So I cut my
hair, and he never said anything to me about it again. He's not
for everybody. You have to be on his page, even though that page
has long run-on sentences that go on to the next page and the
next. But if you stay on it, there's a payoff."
In midfielder Mike Sorber, Bora saw potential that few American
coaches had ever noticed. "There are always a couple of stars in
every country, and he uses them," says Sorber, "but the key is,
he also finds players who no one thinks can play at that level
and gets them to believe they can do it." Though Sorber had never
been a member of a national team at any level, he went on to
start every game for Bora in the World Cup.
In early 1994 the U.S. went three months without a win, tying
Moldova and losing to Iceland. Nobody gave the Yanks a chance in
their first-round World Cup match with Colombia, the trendy pick
to win it all, but they pulled off a 2-1 upset, the greatest
victory in American soccer since 1950. By guiding the U.S. to the
second round, Bora had done it again.
Bora's Nigeria team, in 1998, was easily the most talented he'd
ever assembled, not that you could tell from the Super Eagles'
last four World Cup warmups, which they lost by a combined score
of 13-1. Less than a week before the start of the Cup, Nigerian
officials reportedly reached an agreement to replace Bora with Jo
Bonfrere, who had led Nigeria to the '96 Olympic gold medal. All
that was needed to close the deal was approval from president
Sani Abacha, the military dictator. Then the news arrived from
Nigeria: Abacha had died of a heart attack. Spared, Bora led the
Super Eagles to victories against Spain and Bulgaria, winning the
aptly named Group of Death. The clown was suddenly a magician
Yet Bora still regards Nigeria's second-round exit, a 4-1 loss to
Denmark, as his biggest disappointment. "Nigeria was the only
team [of mine] I thought could win the World Cup," he says. "They
had skills, speed, experience. But not the right spirit. If they
had the right spirit, it would be no contest. They would be the
best." There have been other low moments, such as his firing by
the Italian club Udinese in 1988, his resignation from the MLS
New York/New Jersey MetroStars after a dismal season in '99 and,
in a second tour of duty, in 1997, his dismissal by the Mexican
team (even though Bora had led Mexico to an undefeated record in
the final round of World Cup qualifying).
Despite all that, he remains the world's most recognizable coach,
a man who would turn heads on the streets of Buenos Aires and
Genoa, Lagos and Los Angeles, Marseilles and Guangzhou. It's no
coincidence that his last three World Cup gigs have come with the
most populous nations in the developing soccer continents of
North America, Africa and Asia. "How do you say the word for when
you leave something behind, something for the people to
remember?" he asks one day in Kunming, not long after
autograph-seekers have thrown themselves onto the hood of his
moving car. Finally, after several minutes, a eureka moment:
"Legacy!" he says. He chews the word over, savoring it like a
prime cut of beef. "Legacy."
For someone so inclined toward adventure, the irony is that
Bora's teams often play a maddeningly conservative, distinctly
unadventurous brand of soccer. "Boring Bora," the Nigerian
players called him in 1998, lampooning his tactical discipline,
defensive organization and penchant for low-scoring games. As
anyone who saw the U.S.'s 1-0 World Cup '94 loss to Brazil would
agree, Bora Ball is not always easy on the eyes.
Not that he cares. "Defensive soccer!" he says, waving his hand
with disdain at the usual accusation. "Tell me, who plays
attacking soccer in the World Cup? Nobody! Chess and soccer are
very similar. In chess you learn always first to protect your
king. Then you go for the other king. If you open the space
around your king--in this case, the goal--you're a dead man. You
need to play intelligent soccer, to know who you are against, to
take advantage of openings."
In other words Bora is a results guy, one who happens to coach
international soccer, where success in the World Cup and its
qualifying campaign is all that really matters. But sometimes not
even that is enough to please supporters. In the first of two Cup
qualifying phases last year China won all six of its games,
outscoring teams 25-3, and yet fans and sportswriters were
calling for Bora's head. His crimes: not routing the lowly
Maldives (China won 1-0) and allowing a goal at home in a 3-1
victory over Cambodia. If China couldn't rout the region's
minnows, the thinking went, it had no chance of competing against
Asia's heavyweights in the final phase.
Things got ugly. In an interview on Soccer Night, a weekly show
on China Central TV (CCTV), popular striker Hao Haidong ripped
into Milu, claiming that he was overrated, his coaching style was
merely "average," and he had "only come to China for the money."
(Bora's annual salary, not counting his lucrative endorsements,
is in excess of $700,000.) The next day, an unnamed "key player"
was quoted in the papers saying, "I'm afraid, including Milu, no
one knows what to do during practice." THERE IS STILL TIME TO
REPLACE MILU, blared a headline on Sina.com, one of the country's
top sports websites.
When China was eliminated from a tune-up tournament by lightly
regarded North Korea, chants of Xia ke! (Resign!) rained down
from Workers Stadium in Shanghai. Waves of riot police had to
escort Bora and the team off the field. "Everybody in the stadium
was shouting 'Fire Bora!' and 'Stop the national team!' and 'No
World Cup!'" recalls Lily Li. "In Shanghai the people are
considered very gentle. I tell Bora, 'If this is someplace in the
Northeast, they kill you.'" The next day, Bora recalls, "I saw
MILU in the headlines in red ink. Not good."
In the end Bora saved his job with a mix of patience,
behind-the-scenes maneuvering and his usual dumb, magical luck.
Take the draw for the final round of Asian World Cup qualifying:
Chinese rivals Japan and South Korea were already out of the
picture, since as cohosts they had received automatic bids.
What's more, in an eyebrow-raising move, the Asian confederation
gave the United Arab Emirates a top seed instead of Iran, even
though Iran was the only Asian team to win a game in World Cup
1998. The result: China drew a golden path to the World Cup,
avoiding heavyweights Iran and Saudi Arabia, which ended up in
the other group.
"It was the perfect draw," Bora says. "The perfect draw." A bit
too perfect, said outraged Iranians, who sent a letter of protest
with 17,000 signatures to FIFA and the Asian confederation. Was
the fix in? Nobody will say, but there's no denying that FIFA
wanted the world's largest soccer market to have a rooting
interest in the sport's main event. Indeed, World Cup organizers
have shown no reluctance to leverage the Chinese presence. Before
the final draw in December, FIFA announced that Milu's team would
be based in South Korea, not Japan, the better to attract the
100,000 Chinese fans who will make up the Cup's largest foreign
contingent. (All told, they're expected to spend an average of
7,000 yuan per person, or $845, a sum approaching China's per
In addition to his good fortune Bora made some shrewd moves of
his own. For starters he arranged a secret, conciliatory meeting
with Hao, the forward who'd criticized him. Later Bora attended a
player's wedding, at which he spoke to defender Sun Jihai, the
English-based star whom Bora had not chosen for the national team
for qualifying, citing Sun's propensity for going forward in the
attack too much. After their clearing-the-air sessions, both Hao
and Sun played leading roles in the final qualifying phase. And
in what may have been Bora's masterstroke, he forged a
relationship with Lily Li.
Easily Bora's most uncanny skill is his ability to adapt to the
customs and culture of any country on the globe. Just as he had
donned a Nigerian agbada, a long native robe, during World Cup
1998, Bora suddenly appeared in Chinese ads wearing a magua, a
traditional silk jacket, and his million-yuan smile. Likewise,
upon discovering the Chinese obsession with celebrity journalism,
he struck a deal with Lily, a brassy English-speaking reporter
for the Guangzhou Daily who had never covered sports. "I told him
the truth," she says. "I said, 'Bora, I don't know nothing about
soccer. But I'd like to learn from you, and maybe you can learn
from me about China.'"
So he told her things he hadn't told other Chinese journalists:
about his tears of joy when Darinka was born on the eve of World
Cup '86; about his first trip to China, in '77, when he fell in
love with the country; and about his soccer philosophy, correctly
assuming that Lily, an admitted neophyte, would present it to the
masses without criticism. While Bora got some sorely needed
positive publicity, Lily, 30, became a sensation herself. "Lily,
she's the star," Bora says. After an intense bidding war last
July, the national paper Sports Weekly snapped Lily up, making
her one of the nation's highest-paid journalists. (Though she's
mum on the topic, news reports have estimated her salary to be as
high three million yuan, or $365,000.) Last October, after China
had clinched its World Cup berth, she wrote the 320-page Zero
Distance in 20 days. It sold 200,000 copies in November, the best
single-month sales of any book in China last year.
Not surprisingly, Lily's male competitors suggest there is more
to her relationship with Bora than just soccer. Internet message
boards are regularly filled with the latest dish about the two,
and one of Lily's former colleagues at the Guangzhou Daily
recently wrote a column claiming they have romantic ties. What
the Chinese gossipmongers fail to realize, though, is that while
Bora may arrange Lily's international hotel reservations and help
carry her luggage, he does the same things for American male
journalists who travel to China. "It's not true," Lily says of
the allegation, "but it becomes a rumor, and it snowballs, bigger
and bigger. This is no good for him or for me. He has a family, I
have a husband. I try my best in my career, but the people think
of something else."
In the wake of Lily's breakthrough editors around China have
started assigning women to the soccer beat, which used to be a
purely male preserve. Not that Lily plans on covering the sport
after the World Cup. "I'll do something in TV," she says, "or
maybe I can be an agent. Some players say, 'Lily, hey, if you
start your own company, I come to sign with you.' They trust me."
It was Lily who gave Bora the dynamite idea that he used to
motivate the team for its final-round World Cup qualifier last
August, against the mighty Emirates. Despite his p.r. efforts
Bora certainly would have been fired had China lost, and
authorities in Shenyang deployed 10,000 riot police in the event
of yet another qualifying disaster. So tense was the atmosphere
that the Chinese players sent an open letter to the fans in
Sports Weekly urging restraint.
And so, in the nervous hours before the game, Bora showed his
team Remember the Titans, which Lily had caught on a recent
flight. After the movie, says midfielder Ma, the captain, "I felt
stronger about the team, as if we had good relations, more
respect between the players." With Denzel Washington's voice
ringing in their ears, the Chinese scored two minutes in, added
two more goals before halftime (including a cracker by Hao) and
torched the Emirates 3-0. Qualifying, in which they would finish
12-1-1 overall, was a breeze.
So, can they do it? Will the Chinese defy the odds, fulfill
Pele's prediction and reach the second round of the World Cup?
The evidence certainly says no. To do so, China will almost
surely have to get a win and a tie in its three first-round games
against Costa Rica, Brazil and Turkey. Consider for a moment that
Japan and South Korea, historically the best teams in the Far
East, have never won a game in a combined 17 World Cup matches.
And Pele? Well, let's just say that his prognostications are
often the kiss of death, a fate similar to having Sparky Anderson
call you the next Mickey Mantle.
Yet here comes Socrates--the former Brazilian midfielder, not the
philosopher--picking China to win Group C, ahead of his homeland.
Understandably, Bora does not want to set the bar too high. "When
you go into a competition, you need to dream of being the winner,
but you [have to] have a realistic goal," he tells the Chinese
media one day. "What is assured, we have more supporters [now in
China]. Already we win."
This could just be another setup, of course. Plagued by injuries,
Costa Rica seems particularly vulnerable to a Chinese upset. A
scoreless draw against Turkey is within reason, and not even
Brazil is untouchable; in his two previous World Cup showdowns
against the Brazilians (in 1990 with Costa Rica and in '94 with
the U.S.), Bora lost 1-0. "With Milu," Ma says, "we can do
anything." Perhaps, but it won't be easy. "If they get through to
the second round," says U.S. Soccer's Gulati, "they'll put Bora
right up next to Mao in Tiananmen Square."
Every once in a while, though, Bora betrays more optimism about
China's prospects than he typically lets on. On a sunny April
afternoon, while exploring Kunming's downtown market, he stops at
one of the city's few remaining ornate wooden houses. These days
it's a restaurant, Pizza da Rocco, run by an excitable, hirsute
Italian who's tickled by the presence of his famous guest. "We
stay for some pizza, eh?" Bora says. Before long we learn that
Rocco, in addition to making a tremendous mozzarella pie, came to
China to study the language, married a Chinese woman and remains
a lifelong supporter of the club Napoli. On our way out Rocco
asks Bora what he thinks of China's chances. A pause, a wink and
then this reply: "In una partita, tutto e possibile."
In one game, anything is possible.
"Forza Napoli!" screams Bora, echoing the Italian supporters'
"Forza China!" Rocco yells.
Forza China! It's the perfect rallying cry for the global coach,
to say nothing of Bora's Boys, who may soon become everyone's
Taking on the World
Bora has worked his wizardry on all four teams he's led past the
Cup's first round
YEAR COUNTRY RECORD HOW FAR IT WENT
1986 World Cup Mexico 3-0-2 Quarterfinals
1990 World Cup Costa Rica 2-2-0 Second round
1994 World Cup United States 1-2-1 Second round
1998 World Cup Nigeria 2-2-0 Second round
Solely because of Bora, Pele has predicted that China will be the
Cup's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and reach the second round.
When China clinched its World Cup berth last October, a
half-billion viewers saw it on TV--about four times the audience
for the Super Bowl.
When China went 1-7-2 in Bora's first exhibition matches, says
Lily, "nobody believed in him, including maybe 80 percent of the
"One time I scored a goal, and Bora subbed for me right
afterward," recalls Wynalda. "He said, 'You should have shot
with your left foot.'"
"If the Chinese get through to the second round," says U.S.
Soccer's Gulati, "they'll put Bora right up next to Mao in