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!"
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.