Velibor Bora Milutinovic was born in a country that no longer exists. A Serbian who witnessed the dissolution of Yugoslavia, he began traveling at a frenetic clip. He took a circuitous route, as if he were trying to map the world like a 17th century explorer: France, Switzerland, Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, USA, Nigeria, China, Honduras, Qatar, Jamaica and Iraq. He says that in order to be a football coach you need to learn from the game — but more importantly, you need to be conscious of your surroundings. The phrase “to learn is to adapt” pretty much sums up this globetrotter’s philosophy, a man who has chased a ball all over the world. Those who have known him in the locker room say he’s a navigator who specializes in guiding heavy ships through treacherous waters. Truer words were never spoken. He earned the nickname Miracle Man by leading five different teams to World Cups and classifying four of them for the second round: Mexico (1986), Costa Rica (1990), USA (1994) and Nigeria (1998). And then there’s the China miracle: under his leadership, the most populous country on the planet qualified for the first and only time in 2002. The strategist, who began his career in 1977 on the benches of Pumas de la UNAM, spoke with Remezcla all the way from Doha, Qatar, where he acts as advisor to the Aspire Academy. Still sporting his trademark rumpled hairstyle, he is training elite athletes in these luxury facilities, preparing them for Qatar’s forthcoming duties as host of the 2022 World Cup.
What’s it like to live in Qatar after the Arab Spring? Political problems are social problems, and the people here are well looked after. It’s a good country, peaceful and well-developed.
You’ve experienced several important moments in history. For instance, you played football in France during another iconic spring: 1968, and the protests of the so called May ‘68 movement. What was that like? Those were different times…
You’re from a place called Bajina Basta, I’ve always heard you brag about it. What does your birthplace mean to you? It’s a wonderful place. Full of nature, water, lakes, rivers, mountains, everything. I was lucky to be born in a place like that. You have to be very humble. And in order to survive, you need to have the talent to know how to get ahead.
Is there any relationship between your wandering, nomadic spirit and your country’s history of instability? I don’t think so. I was born into a poor, but well-educated family. I like to travel, but I don’t think being born there influenced me in that respect. For example, I have a brother who doesn’t like to travel. That’s just the way my personality is. My life philosophy is different.
“We were the only Yugoslavian family with three brothers on the national team”
What was your childhood in Yugoslavia like when Mariscal Tito was in power? It was phenomenal. That is the period of my life that i remember most fondly. For me it was an honor to be one of Tito’s ‘pioneers’. [Josip Broz Tito was Yugoslavia’s first President and so-called “benevolent dictator” who served in various leadership roles from 1943 until his death in 1980.] On November 29th [a national holiday] I was given my red scarf. It was another way of thinking; everyone was happy marching in the parades, building a country. If I could trade this phase in my life for that one, I would, I would go back and relive it. I participated in wonderful camps, where the richness of nature was overwhelming; it was a time in my life that I’ll never forget. [The Union of Pioneers of Yugoslavia was a socialist youth movement that wore uniforms and pledged allegiance to Tito’s values].
Why did you decide to leave Yugoslavia? I don’t really know. It was an adventure. All Yugoslavians leave to see the world one day. I went to France and played with three teams there. Then I went to Switzerland, then Mexico. I got there in 1964: Mexico and its volcanoes, before the smog, before the pollution, when there were fewer cars. Leaving Yugoslavia was an adventure and I didn’t know how long it would last. I left and never thought about whether or not I’d come back, life just simply takes you along.
When you left your country did your idea of Tito change? Did you perhaps become disenchanted with him? No. I understand a lot of things, but it’s hard to talk about enchantment or disenchantment when it comes to a personality. He made many mistakes, but I can only speak to the time that I lived under his rule. Back then, my brothers and I played football in the Belgrade Partizan. We were the only Yugoslavian family with three brothers on the national team — albeit not at the same time. I played on the under 18 team, and they played in the major leagues. For us football means passion.
Your brother Milos was called la saeta rubia (the blond arrow) like Di Stefano. Is it true that Real Madrid tried to recruit him so they could play together? Yes, President (Santiago) Bernabéu tried to recruit him, but they didn’t let him leave. It was a different time.
What have you taken away from the juxtaposition of growing up under a socialist regime like Tito’s and then, years later, becoming an icon of a multimillion dollar sport? I’ve been lucky under both systems. With all of their advantages and disadvantages. One should be sufficiently smart to know what’s good for you and what isn’t, what to do and what not to do. All systems have pros and cons. It’s true that the World Cup is an industry — and in this particular industry you have to fit in and not stray from the path.
Would you say some people adapt better than others? [I’d say] at different capacities. Because life’s circumstances force you to adapt, because if you don’t get with it, you die. For example, do you know what it’s like to freeze to death? Or die of hunger? Do you know what it’s like? No you don’t, and because you don’t, you don’t know about life. I know what it’s like to have no food, to be cold. I knew what I had to do: give everything I had so I’d never have to go through moments like that again. That’s life. I always say that people don’t realize what they don’t know. Why? Because it’s necessary to learn from the game, but more importantly, it’s necessary to be aware of your surroundings — and that goes for life as well.
“I don’t like to talk to the players, I do everything based on intuition.”
I always see you smiling, even though you have good reasons not to. How did you forward after the death of your parents when you were a young child?I try to enjoy the present. What will happen later? We’ll find out eventually. I had a very happy childhood: I was young, I had a ball and a place to lay my head because I went to live with my aunt and uncle after my parents died during WWII. What more do you need? When we didn’t have shoes, we’d make do. But growing up without those things makes you stronger and teaches you to value life. Now that I travel the world, people sometimes ask me: “Where will we sleep?”. What do you mean where? The important thing is that we’re not on the street. And it helps you to adapt better. That’s an important lesson in life: you can get used to anything. I adapt because of the conditions I was born to — where I lived, where I experienced different demands. I’ve had far more satisfaction in life than problems. You have to enjoy life. One of my problems is that I give interviews but it’s hard for me to talk about intimate things. So people often are quick to judge me without actually getting to see beneath my surface, because I don’t like to show it.
What does being a football coach mean to you? It means forging a path. It’s important that coaches walk the path they want their players to take, to act as examples not just on the field but in their private lives. You need to have priorities. Winning games is easy, but being a winner is tough. You have to learn how to be a winner not only out on the field but in life. The best way to teach players is to show them, through your example, what they need to do. During training I don’t like to be prohibitive or a scold. I just do what I think the players should do: be responsible and give it my best.
How do you prepare when you travel to train teams in a countries you’ve never been to before? I don’t. People ask me if I think language is a factor, but I don’t think it is. I think attitudes, gestures and actions are more important; I do what I need to do spontaneously and based on intuition, and thank God it’s worked so far. You have to have common sense to know what to do. There are no magic formulas for success with a team. There may be certain methods, but they way you interpret them is what matters most. You must have the vision to make the necessary adjustments and not talk too much. You might have a lot of help in life, but instinct is what tells you what to do and when.
Does a country’s history and context affect a player’s performance, his psychology? That’s the most important factor to analyze. That’s why I don’t like to talk to the players, I do everything based on intuition. Each country has different issues but it’s fundamentally important to have a good connection to the people you work with.
Have you ever been afraid? Maybe on your last adventure as a coach in Baghdad in 2009 (which was still at war)… Afraid? No. Why? Each opportunity to train in a different country is a challenge. In Iraq I told them, “I’ll train you, but we have to do it somewhere else.” They accepted my offer and we trained here in Doha. Although, as you mentioned, I did have to go to Baghdad for my introduction as coach. It was a unique atmosphere, I enjoyed it in my own way.
The solitude of so much travel — could you fill a book with stories about it? I don’t like to talk about that. I wouldn’t say that traveling is lonely because I don’t need much to be happy and content. It’s enough for me to be healthy and have work. My pleasures are simple: I play cards, chess, I play tennis for entertainment and I talk to my friends.
How do you keep your feet on the ground when you’re known all around the world? I’ve seen you in China hiding in the bathroom until the police were able to control the thousands of fans hoping for a picture with you. Bora is known worldwide. The way the Chinese love me is more than enough! Just kidding.
How do you see Mexico in the World Cup? Have we stopped being los ratones verdes? My teams have always had extraordinary attitudes, spirits and positive results. When people talk about the bad attitudes of Mexican players I’m honestly surprised, because I never had those issues. With the Pumas we won everything by playing brilliant football. And with the national team we won important tournaments and finished sixth place in the World Cup, without losing any games. I always had players with excellent mindsets. Current generations have more opportunities to get experience abroad, which is why it would never occur to me to say that Mexicans have a fearful mentality. I was the coach for Pumas, the best team I ever had. Teams make the players. The coach’s duty is to surround himself with the best players and use his intuition. People ask me what I think of the team for this World Cup. I think the most important thing is to create a good vibe around the team, and the best way to support Mexican football — football which I love so much — is to simply not comment on it too much. Because otherwise I could say things that people misinterpret. Instead I defer completely to the current coach, because I know what it feels like to hear lots of commentators saying good and bad things about the process of selecting a national team. You have to be very careful about what you say.
When you say that it reminds me of your good judgement in football, which many don’t have. For instance, La Volpe. What are your thoughts? I’m respectful.
How is USA going to do? They’ll be fine with Klinsmann. They have an extraordinary sports culture. It may look like football is not their thing. They play soccer, which is different. I was lucky enough to be their national team’s coach thanks to (Franz) Beckenbauer. (Henry) Kissinger asked him who could do it and he suggested me. I look back and feel proud of the growth they’ve had. Their football is getting better and better.
“You can’t treat a Chinese player like a Mexican one, or an American player like a Nigerian or an Iraqi.”
How do you remember the American football player? As collegiates. My team was all university students. And they were proud, fighters, competitive. Like Alexis Lalas. He hadn’t seen a single match of football until he was 17 years old. He played two World Cups, he was a captain, he had careers, he played guitar… He is a great example. He ended up playing for Italy. Remembering that is why I say you can’t treat a Chinese player like a Mexican one, or an American player like a Nigerian or an Iraqi.
What has been the best phase of your career? My time with the Pumas was wonderful. When I finished my career as a player for the Pumas I had no future. Just my coach diploma. But an administration with a different vision came into the picture. They began restructuring things and I became a coach; later they made me technical director of the team. It was a highly capable generation, and all of these favorable circumstances that are impossible to plan just came together. Everything came together. My time with the Mexican national team between 1983 and 1986 was unbelievable! China was very different. Costa Rica, for example, is a country with only 3 million people. In China at least 600 million people follow football, which is why the satisfactions with the team were different. We got along great — I spoke in Spanish, zero Chinese, but we understood each other well. God gave me this talent (he touches his nose as if to signal his superior sense of smell) and the necessary things.
Bora, to what do you attribute your success? Few have a resume like yours in the world of football. Could we call it luck? Luck is an expression. Luck is a part of life, but you make your own luck and follow your gut.