He might well become the subject of the ultimate quiz question: which man has led both the United States and China into global battle? One thing is certain, though: Bora Milutinovic will be making World Cup history in Japan and Korea next summer. He will not just be doing so as the coach guiding China on their debut appearance in the World Cup finals. The 54-year Serb will be carving an historic niche of his own as the first man to coach five different countries in World Cup finals.
At present, Milutinovic shares the record with Carlos Alberto Parreira, who coached Kuwait in 1982, the United Arab Emirates in 1990, Brazil in 1994 and Saudi Arabia in 1998. Parreira, of course, guided Brazil to victory in 1994. Milutinovic, though, has steered four countries through to the second stage of the competition – an outright record – and boasts a World Cup cv that explains his nickname as "the miracle worker", as Alan Rothenberg, the former president of the United States Soccer Federation, dubbed him.
No one north of Berwick is likely to disagree. Milutinovic inspired Costa Rica to their famous 1-0 win against Andy Roxburgh's Scotland in Genoa in 1990 – a result which shed a little of its national embarrassment in Caledonia when the Costa Ricans proceeded to beat Sweden 2-1 and lose 1-0 to Brazil before suffering a 4-1 second-round knock-out at the hands of Czechoslovakia. It was a similar story in 1994, when the United States – with Milutinovic at the coaching helm – drew 1-1 with Switzerland and beat Colombia 2-1 (in the match that was to have tragic consequences for Andreas Escobar) en route to a 1-0 second-round defeat (to a late Bebeto goal) against Brazil.
It was much the same, too, in 1998. Milutinovic took Nigeria to the second stage, where they lost 4-1 to Denmark, after beating Spain 3-2 and Bulgaria 1-0.
Then there was the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Milutinovic led the hosts to the quarter-finals, where they lost in a penalty shoot-out to West Germany – the farthest Mexico have ventured.
Just making it to the finals of 2002 is as far as China have ever been. It is a first, too, for their coach, who was in charge of host nations in 1986 and 1994 and who took over qualified teams in 1990 and 1998. This time Milutinovic has progressed through the qualifying stage with his team – and impressively so.
China topped their Asian group with six wins, one draw and a solitary defeat. In the process, their coach has become a national hero. Milutinovic, who played for Red Star Belgrade and Monaco in his younger days, cannot walk a street in China without being mobbed. A television audience of 500 million watched the 1-0 win against Oman that secured qualification for his team, who include the former Crystal Palace midfielder Fan Zhiyi, now of Dundee, and the striker Zang Yunig, who Dave Bassett has tried to sign for Leicester.
"I am so happy for the people of China that we have made history by qualifying," Milutinovic says. "I just hope everyone stays realistic about the team's chances."Reuse content