Interview | Bora Milutinović

Words by: James Montague Illustrations by: Philippe Fenner
November 20, 2017
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It was a journey that started in Belgrade over six decades ago, taking in France, Mexico, Argentina, Italy, the US, the Persian Gulf and five World Cup finals, before leading to here, a modest grass floodlit pitch in the Qatari capital of Doha, watching an under 19 match in front of a handful of people.

Bora Milutinović is sitting in the stands taking in a game featuring the next generation of Qatari players as they beat their Croatian counterparts 1-0 in the final of a friendly tournament. In the near distance the recently renovated Khalifa International Stadium can be seen through a humid, late summer haze. It will host a quarter final match at the 2022 World Cup finals, which Qatar will controversially host. It is both a symbol of Qatar’s progress and also its weakness. It has been finished – complete with internal air conditioning – five years before the tournament is due to take place here. It was also at the centre of a 2016 Amnesty International report that detailed the abuse of migrant workers who have been building the country’s football infrastructure.

In the middle of all the politics, a football team has to be built and Qatar is Bora’s latest stop on an incredible career as both player and coach that has taken him to almost every corner of the world. After emerging from Partizan Belgrade’s youth academy in the 1950s, he went on to play for Monaco and Nice before seeing out his career in Mexico, at Pumas, where he would later take over as coach. That, in turn, led to a new chapter in his life, one which saw him achieve a unique feat, first with Mexico in 1986, then with Costa Rica, the US, Nigeria and China: the first man to coach five different teams, at five consecutive World Cup finals.

He is fluent in five languages, maybe more, and greets well wishers in their mother tongue, switching easily between them. Over the years he has acquired a reputation as something of a no-nonsense firefighter, a man to call when you need a national team drilled into shape in a hurry. After losing to West Germany on penalties in the quarter finals at Mexico ’86, he took Costa Rica to their first finals, at Italia ’90 [where they famously beat Sweden and Scotland], despite having just two months to prepare the team.

He took charge of the US national team before they hosted the 1994 finals, despite speaking limited English and with few people – even many Americans – expecting the emerging soccer nation to achieve much, even on home soil. Famously, he told Alexi Lalas – who then had his iconic long red hair – to have it cut short or he’d be cut from the team. “Bora was hugely important to me because he had faith in me and he gave me opportunities, but he would test you in different ways,” Lalas said in a 2016 interview with the New York Times. That test came when Lalas received a note that Bora wanted his hair cut. After raging for a few minutes, Lalas complied. “I wanted to be on the team so bad that — I was in Phoenix, I’ll never forget it — I went down and got my hair cut.” Lalas to this day keeps those shorn locks in a bag as a souvenir.

He is fluent in five languages, maybe more, and greets well wishers in their mother tongue, switching easily between them. Over the years he has acquired a reputation as something of a no-nonsense firefighter, a man to call when you need a national team drilled into shape in a hurry.

Nigeria was next, at France ’98. The Super Eagles also made the knockout stage after beating Spain 3-2. It was the first time a coach had taken national teams the knock out stages four times. Arguably his toughest test was China. He masterminded their first ever qualification, for the 2002 finals, winning 12 out of 14 games, losing just once. After three defeats in the group stage, he quit. Seemingly for good. “I’ll be 60 when the World Cup is over. It’s time for my retirement,” he said after resigning his post. But that, of course, didn’t happen. He went on to coach Jamaica, Honduras and Iraq, and now he is in Qatar, as an adviser to the royal family as well as to Aspire, the academy that has been charged with putting a competitive team together for the 2022 finals.

Alan Rothenberg, the man seen as largely responsible for USA ’94’s successful hosting of the tournament, once dubbed Bora the “miracle worker”. With a population of just 2.5 million, of which only 10 per cent are Qatari citizens, he will have to live up to that name in what might finally be the final stop, and the toughest challenge, on his epic journey.

You’ve been here for a few years. And now you are giving advice to the Qatari royal family. How have you seen football in Qatar change since you’ve been here?

It changes slowly. Every day it gets better. You know, we have one very important sport academy. Aspire is very important. You have so many young players. They learn to play football here. They learn so many things about football and about life here. They’ve made great progress.

Aspire is controversial, especially as it is bringing players here from around the word. There is also a debate about stopping naturalised players being picked for the Qatar national team [former coach Jorge Fossati threatened to quit when the Qatar FA suggested such a policy]. Do you agree?

Every country do what they have to do. It is very difficult. You have so many countries with players that have another nationality. Twenty years ago it was very difficult to take a player like this. Thirty years ago it was impossible. But today it is a different time, a different world. Everybody is respecting the rules, and you prepare the team in the best way.

What does Qatar have to do to put together a competitive team for 2022 World Cup? Obviously it won’t be at Russia 2018…

To have passion. You need to believe, you need to dream, and you need to prepare well. But to be ready you need to be ready in 2022, in June. Not before. Only this is important. One week before the World Cup you can speak that your team is ready for the World Cup, not before.

There must be steps that can be taken now?

You take the steps. I have my experience with the US. OK, it is impossible to make the comparison, but in the American players, I had great players with a great attitude. The preparations were perfect. We had a good World Cup [Bora’s USA team reached the second round]. The [2-1] win against Colombia in Pasadena was great. But if you started to judge now the Qatari team, if you see the result now, you wouldn’t be optimistic. You need to see what happens in the next three and a half years. But I have to tell you when I was coach of Costa Rica in 1990 we prepared the team in 70 days, and we got through [to the knockout stage]. Everything is relative.

Could you be the coach of Qatar in 2022? You could have sixth World Cup finals…

No, no, no! I am happy with my five World Cups, one after the other! Thank God I’ve had a great experience with Mexico, Costa Rica, USA, Nigeria and China.

What do you think of those who criticise Qatar? Those that say it has no football culture and that it has bought the World Cup?

You need to give other people a chance to enjoy the World Cup. For example, which country can organise the best World Cup ever? What do you think? Germany. Nobody is like Germany. They organise things very well but you also need to give other countries a chance. For the people who live here, for their passion, for the region, for the religion, for the continent. Give them a chance to organise a World Cup. On the other side, it will be a perfect World Cup. It will be a compact World Cup. Everything will be close. You won’t have to travel like in other countries. Everything here will be perfect. The perfect temperature in the stadium, 22-23 degree [the 2022 World Cup will now take place in winter]. Everything will be perfect. If you like to enjoy the game, you can see two games in one day.

You first came here in 1993 and coached local club Al Saad in 2004. Are you surprised by Qatar’s rise? And how important is the game to people here?

You don’t have so many people, maybe 300,000 people. No one knew Qatar 20 years ago. Now they do. It is a very important country for the sport, for culture, for many things.

After all these years, do you still have the same passion for the game?

Everyday I try to enjoy football, in a different way. When you are my age it is different. I meet so many people around the world. In my life I have never worked a day.

What was the proudest moment, the one moment that stands out?

To tell you about one moment is impossible. But in Mexico I was the coach of the Pumas, and won the championship. It was a great team. Being with Mexico at my first World Cup. I remember against [eventual semi-finalists] Belgium [who Mexico beat 2-1], the whole stadium singing the national anthem. Costa Rica’s first ever World Cup. The Olympic Games in Atlanta [where he oversaw the Mexico squad]. So many. When I was with Nigeria, we beat Spain [at France ’98]. With the USA, we won the Gold Cup [in 1991], my very first Gold Cup. We beat Mexico. So it is difficult I have so many memories

Given the preparation and the money, do you think they Qatar will surprise people in 2022?

You never know. You know, five years before it is difficult to know. They have three or four very good players with talent. You never know what will happen in the future. They are trying to send the players to get experience with teams in Spain [Cultural Leonesa in the second division] and Belgium [with first division KAS Eupen, both Qatari owned]. This is the right way to give young people a chance to play, to get experience. Without experience, it is impossible to do something.

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The interview has been edited for space and clarity.

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