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Grant Wahl
May 20, 2002
After leading four nations to the World Cup, Bora Milutinovic took his magic act to China, saving his toughest trick for last
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May 20, 2002

Soccer's Sorcerer

After leading four nations to the World Cup, Bora Milutinovic took his magic act to China, saving his toughest trick for last

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Bora has worked his wizardry on all four teams he's led past the Cup's first round





1986 World Cup




1990 World Cup

Costa Rica


Second round

1994 World Cup

United States


Second round

1998 World Cup



Second round

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 f�tbol'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 Pel�'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."

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, Pel� 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 globetrotting 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!"

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