Football / World Cup USA '94: Milutinovic speaks volumes for cult of the coach: The taciturn manager of the United States team says little but means much to those pundits who put strategy before skill

Click to follow
WHEN the American cable television network ESPN completed coverage of Saturday's match between Spain and Switzerland, some citizens of the host country declared themselved better informed about the game excitingly in their midst. 'That guy really knows his business,' one of them said.

This significant advance in education was achieved through attention to the efforts of a former West Ham defender, Clive Charles, an immigrant of 15 years standing who importantly, and perhaps understandably since he grew up under Ron Greenwood's wing, has the gift of being able to share his knowledge with the audience

Charles is not perfect and maybe his accent is thought to be a problem, but clueless viewers would benefit from a great deal more of him and less of what passes for expert punditry, especially the theoretical meandering of an Irish- born Harvard administrator, Seamus Malin. If the object is enlightenment, ESPN should put Charles in its first team. It should start with him. Always.

The other evening we were talking - some grizzled veterans of past World Cups - about the issue of misinformation. It came up as a topic because, irrefutably, a lot of the material being fed to the American public on television and by newspapers amounts to what a friend calls 'gobbledegook'.

Tailored to American tastes, the terminology can be irritating, but our minds were more on the fact that the game is rarely seen here for what it is - a succession of individual tussles within a team effort - but as a strategic exercise. Get to know the formations and you will come to understand the play. Individual skill is important but not as important as the coach's wisdom, or lack of it.

Perhaps I ought not to be overly critical of this perception, because unquestionably it is gaining ground in British football and elsewhere. When the audience was essentially working class it responded, in the main, to talented footballers. Strategy and tactics were incidental to the experience. Today, in their eagerness to pose as students, many spectators think of little else. They are intellectualising the game to its detriment.

Appropriately, the coach as an omnipotent figure is best represented here by Bora Milutinovic, the Serbo-Croat who is taking the United States into today's match against Brazil at Palo Alto near San Francisco. Never mind the players, Bora is the main man. 'Leave it to Bora,' you hear people saying, thinking a miracle to be within his capabilities.

English is said to be among the languages Milutinovic speaks but pleading ignorance of it enables him to maintain an air of reflective detachment when approached by the American press corps. One or two are said to have engaged him in casual conversation but there is no proof of it. By comparison, Alf Ramsey in office was gregarious.

In the unlikely event of a US victory today, Milutinovic could think about being cast in bronze. An invitation to the White House. Currently, there is not a baseball manager or an NFL coach with a higher profile.

Interestingly, Milutinovic finds himself in direct opposition to the only other man who has coached three different countries in the World Cup finals, Carlos Alberto Parreira of Brazil. Parreira holds considerable respect for him. 'Bora is a great psychologist,' he said. 'He gets the best out of players, makes them perform for him. You always know that Bora's teams will be competitive. It would be foolish to underestimate him.'

With his unruly hair and intense eyes Milutinovic, in his 51st year, makes an interesting study. Through perfect adaption to various cultures, he has prospered both as a player and tutor. He seeks success with a grimmer determination than any of his World Cup contemporaries. The ear-joining grin he wears when fulfilling an obligation to the press and television is misleading.

'When we appointed Bora we knew exactly what we were getting,' an official of the US Soccer Federation said. 'He is at his best in a World Cup.' Since the loss to Romania that provided evidence of his team's shortcomings, Milutinovic has said very little. The purpose of his responses has been to establish that recovery has already been achieved and that selection is nobody's business but his own.

Finally, I must address the chilling fact of Andres Escobar's murder in Medellin, Colombia. When Colombia lost to the US at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, there were happenings of a mysterious nature. I am not thinking specifically of Escobar's own-goal, which could be be put down to an aberration, but of Colombia's general demeanour. Their promise turned out to be suspiciously comical but in the morgue laughter has a hollow ring.