How Bora Milutinovic Became a Cross-Border Phenomenon in the Mexico-US Soccer Rivalry

PHOTO/ Stephen Dunn

October 10 marks the next hugely important game in the history of the Mexico-U.S. fútbol rivalry. While we’re all busy making predictions, analyzing rosters, and getting hype for the partidazo that’s to come, there’s one man who understands what’s about to hit us better than the rest: Bora Milutinovic, the only coach to win a Gold Cup with both the U.S. and Mexico in 1991 and 1996 respectively.

Born in Serbia, Milutinovic can more aptly be described as a global citizen; he speaks Serbian, Spanish, and Italian fluently, and is even conversational in other languages as well. He is one of only two coaches to direct five different nations at the World Cup (Mexico in 1986, Costa Rica in 1990, the U.S. in 1994, Nigeria in 1998 and China in 2002), taking 4 of 5 (minus China) beyond the first round. A bonafide miracle worker to be sure.

Milutinovic took the helm of the U.S. national team in February of 1991 following the resignation of Bob Gansler, after having already gained recognition as a person with great knowledge of the inner workings of the CONCACAF, since he pretty much knows the confederation like the back of his hand. In 1986, he took Mexico to the World Cup quarter-finals – where the hosts lost in penalties – and in 1990 he led Costa Rica to the knockout stages, perhaps an even more impressive feat.

With the red, white, and blue, Milutinovic was tasked with changing a soccer culture, solidifying a transformation from amateurism to professionalism, and growing a love for the beautiful game. His master plan? Construct an organized soccer team based on possession play – Bora ball, as it was called. In an interview before the 1991 Gold Cup, he stated that “the skill, the tactics is not so good. But American boys in good shape, run all day. They never quit. That is good.” Turns out that’s all he needed.

So, there he was: the miracle worker leading a youthful soccer nation to regional significance and success. His plan worked, too. After a mere two wins in 25 against El Tri between the years of 1934 and 1991, Militunović’s U.S. squad surprised the soccer world and defeated their arch rivals in the 1991 Gold Cup semifinals. John Doyle and Peter Vermes. Dos a Cero. The U.S. went on to defeat Honduras in penalty kicks in the final en route to a championship in Pasadena.

Bora gained recognition as a person with great knowledge of the inner workings of the CONCACAF.

The importance of this victory cannot be downplayed; U.S. soccer was building an identity under Bora, that strange man with unkempt hair and peculiar habits. In a New York Times article directly preceding the 1994 World Cup, he was said to have “revamped the style of the national team from European long ball to a Latin game of possession and control…instilling a belief that American players belong in the World Cup and are not simply soccer tourists.” Bora himself stated, “they call me the Magic Man, and I’d like to be like Magic Johnson, but there is no magic, no mystery. I’m just trying to find something special.”

He found it, alright. The U.S. managed to make it to the round of 16 that year (for the first time since the 1930s), once again blowing the soccer world’s minds. But on April 14, 1995 – less than a year later – Milutinovic was let go by the USSF. You know what that means: Bora was back for his second stint at the helm of the Mexican national team from 1995 to 1997!

In 1996, the third edition of the Gold Cup was held in the cities of Los Angeles, San Diego, and Anaheim. El Tri handed St. Vincent a 5-0 drubbing before defeating Guatemala 1-0 and setting up a final against heavy favorite Brazil. This time, the Dos a Cero went in Mexico’s favor, and goals from Luis García and Cuauhtémoc Blanco solidified a second straight Gold Cup championship.

The Washington Post reported in the days following the victory that “a surreal scene engulfed the fog-covered Coliseum” upon the conclusion of the match, “as many of the 88,155 rain-drenched spectators chanted, ‘Borrr-a, Borrr-a, Borrr-a!’ He responded by waving wildly and blowing kisses to his adoring fans.” This was a man who had already achieved legendary status in Mexico, a man who everyone was glad to have back on their side after his success with the U.S.

“There is no secret, my friend. I am a lucky man.”

“I am very happy because of the soccer performance and because of the joy we are able to give the people of Mexico and the people of Los Angeles,” he said following the win (which, by the way, was Mexico’s first against Brazil since 1970). What was his secret? “There is no secret, my friend. I am a lucky man.”

After the 1991 Gold Cup, Bora was famously quoted saying, “You don’t measure soccer in terms of one week.” He’s right, you don’t. You measure in terms of long-lasting legacies and accompanying success. In this unique case, Bora’s presence is felt on both sides. He’s a cross-border phenom praised by all. I wonder how he thinks the next chapter of this fabled rivalry will play out.