Bora & the China syndrome

Published : Nov 10, 2001 00:00 IST

BORA MILUTINOVIC has done it again. He has taken a thoroughly unfancied team, in this case, China, through to the World Cup finals. And though the Chinese are anything but a dominating or convincing team at the moment, despite their qualification from the Asian section, do not pray write them off. This has happened before with teams Bora has taken to the World Cup finals, above all Costa Rica who amazed their opponents in the 1990 World Cup in Italy. Four years later the United States, coached by Bora, though as hosts they did not need to qualify, went a great deal further than anyone had expected and in the second round went out only 1-0 to the eventual winners, Brazil.

Bora, whom I have known and liked for many years, is a Yugoslav who has perhaps been most closely associated with Mexico. He managed them - again, a team which didn't have to qualify - in the 1986 World Cup finals, when they were indeed so unlucky eventually to go out only on penalties to the eventual finalists, Germany. He was charge of them again for much of the way towards the 1998 World Cup finals. But when in the next qualifying stages the team flagged, Mexico dismissed him.

No matter. Bora promptly resurfaced when Nigeria sacked their coach, and took over for the finals in France. No simple task. The Nigerian squad was riven with inter-tribal rivalries, and Bora had his work cut out to maintain a semblance of harmony. Before the opening match against Spain, in which most people expected the Nigerians to lose, he sprang one of his typical surprises. In the dressing room before the kick off, he produced and showed a video of the players' relatives, encouraging them to win. It seemed to work. Morale was restored and a shocking error by the veteran Spanish 'keeper, Zubizarreta, gave Nigeria an early lead and encouraged them to victory.

Bora himself was a competent rather than a brilliant footballer, a defender. The star turn of the family was his brother Milos, an immensely gifted inside forward and a salient figure in the Yugoslav team which contested in the 1958 World Cup in Sweden. But it was Bora who went on to do great things as a manager, after both brothers had played in France and eventually in Mexico; where I first had the pleasure of meeting them, during the 1970 World Cup.

Bora can seem a strangely elusive figure, till he eventually comes round to you. During his time in charge of the American team, he insistently declared that he hadn't enough English to cope with Press conferences, and needed an interpreter. But if you then asked him questions in Spanish, he would elect not to answer them, either!

For a long while before the '94 World Cup he had what you might almost call an awkward squad of American players in training camp, playing a host of meaningless friendlies. But when the trumpet sounded and the real battles began, back to the States came the various players such as Farnie Stewart and Wynalda, to form a side which acquitted itself honourably in the tournament, holding the Swiss to a draw, actually beating a Colombian side which, however, seemed for one murky reason or another to be giving the game away. If Bora then and even now has tended to be associated with a cautious and defensive mentality, his Nigerian, Mexican and Costa Rican teams have often attacked with flair and penetration. Don't however, expect as much from the Chinese, who have been notably lacking in midfield craft, go in for very big men, and tend to belt the ball long to their attackers.

In 1986, Bora deployed a Mexican team driven on from midfield by the forceful Thomas Boy, even if the man who was expected to be the star turn, acrobatic little dentist Hugo Sanchez, so successful in Spain, proved to be something of a disappointment.

Costa Rica, four years later, surpassed themselves. Beaten by Wales in a friendly shortly before the Italian World Cup began, they seemed to be nothing but a potential chopping block. Instead they proceeded to beat Scotland in their opening game in Genoa, one which contained a typical moment of Bora. When play was held up at one juncture, Bora called his striker Jara over to the touchline and actually drew a diagram to tell him just what he wanted him to do. It seemed to work, for Jara would eventually score!

Later, again in Genoa, Costa Rica toppled another powerful opponent by beating Sweden. They went out 4-1 in the second round to the Czechs, but there was surely no disgrace in that; they had surpassed themselves.

And China? Hardly the most disciplined of teams, alas. Hao Haidong, their most dangerous striker, was banned for a year for spitting at a linesman during a match in the Asian Games in Bangkok. As was a teammate for striking a referee during the Olympic soccer tournament in Australia. And those Chinese players who have tried their luck in Europe have largely returned home with their tails between their legs.

Not the case, however, with the big centre back Fan Zyhi. "I need 11 Fans," says Bora of the best regarded player in China; a goal scorer as well as a defender. Fan played last season successfully in London for Crystal Palace who were greatly upset when this season he refused to come home, striking him off their roster. He is now 31; and indeed it is by and large a somewhat elderly squad.

An exception to the rule however, is the attacker Li Jinyu who is only 23. He did not last long in France with Nancy but since coming back to China has looked lively and effective. In fact he first made an international impact in France in the Under 21 pollen tournament, which was doubtless what interested Nancy. That was in 1998. He feels he learned much in France.

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