Mr. Bora Goes to Qatar

Cross posted from the New York Times

If the United Nations had a soccer team, Bora Milutinovic would undoubtedly be its coach.
Associated Press, 1993/If the United Nations had a soccer team, Bora Milutinovic would undoubtedly be its coach.

Bora Milutinovic, the renowned international soccer coach, is notoriously hard to pin down.

Back when he coached the United States in the early 1990s, his constant evasions about rosters and tactics led one reporter to quip, “Milutinovic speaks five languages fluidly, but doesn’t answer tough questions completely in any of them.”

One afternoon last month, Bora (he operates on a strictly first-name basis) was leading a whirlwind tour of one of Qatar’s countless monuments to its staggering wealth — this an obscenely lavish indoor sports facility in the capital, Doha, containing a full-size soccer field, multiple state-of-the-art weight rooms and an Olympic-length swimming pool. “This is the best example of how people have dreams to give best opportunity to people of Qatar,” he said.

The pint-size Persian Gulf peninsula boasts the highest GDP per capita in the world. But Bora maintains that money has little to do with it. “No, no, no. Not just that,” he said when the question comes up. But before elaborating, he snakes around the approaching corner and into the men’s room.

Some 20 minutes later, he finally circles back. “Sure, money is important,” he concedes, “but it’s also important to have the goal of giving a chance to people.” He adds that Qatar doesn’t have political problems because “political problems are social problems and the people here are being taken care of.”

Bora, 68, who since 1983 has managed eight different national teams — from Mexico in 1983 to Iraq in 2009 — insists he is done coaching. Not that he’s stuck to that same vow in the past. But the so-called miracle worker of global soccer is enjoying his new job as, well, it’s not entirely clear. When asked what he does in Qatar, Bora flashes an impish grin and replies: “I don’t have a role. Only I share my experience.”

That’s not exactly true. Officially, Bora’s an adviser at Aspire Academy, whose facilities he has just been flaunting, a sporting institute for Qatar’s elite young athletes. Unofficially, he’s a jack of all trades for Qatari sport — consultant, goodwill ambassador, and indefatigable salesman.

It’s in this last role that Bora thrives. He settled in Qatar in 2009 to serve as “bid ambassador” for its successful campaign to host the 2022 World Cup and counts helping the sleepy emirate of 1.7 million people upset a field of the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea among his finest accomplishments. “I’m very happy,” he said, beaming about the experience. “I joke with the people. They ask me: ‘Bora how you explain this?’ This is easy: my team always wins.”

Indeed, Bora has won a lot over his career. Of the eight different national teams he’s coached, Bora has taken a record five to the World Cup. At the 1994 World Cup in the United States, he led a crew of journeymen to a narrow second-round defeat to eventual champion Brazil.

Characteristically, the Serb with the messy hair and mad scientist persona also succeeded in confounding everyone around him. “You really have to put all your faith and believe in what he’s doing,” defender Alexi Lalas told The New York Times weeks before the tournament. “A lot of times, it’s hard, because I have no idea what he’s doing.”

Bora returned to the States in 1998 to coach the then New York/New Jersey MetroStars of M.L.S. His hapless squad registered one of the worst records in league history in 1999. Thirteen years on, he’s keen to defend his honor.

“You have to look the conditions I have to work,” he launches in. “You know who is Tom Howard?”

As in Tim Howard?

“You know who put him in first team ever?” he continues, not missing a beat. “You know what they tell me. I’m nuts. But you know what happened. Two years after, he go in Manchester, and now how you going to judge me?”

Milutinovic was the coach of Iraq when it tried to qualify for the 2010 World Cup.
Associated Press/Milutinovic was the coach of Iraq in 2009 … for three weeks.

But Bora’s track record since the late ‘90s has fallen well short of the heights of his early years. His last gig, coaching Iraq in 2009, lasted just three weeks.

In Qatar, Bora has regained his swagger. Everyone in Doha seems to know Mr. Bora. At one hotel he pays a visit to, about 20 employees huddle around the front desk, swooning, as he exits. Bora reciprocates with a few wisecracks about the spotty service. Later in the day, at the Qatar Under-19 national team’s training session, Bora packs the energy of a little kid. “Il faut pas dormir!” he yells in faux seriousness at a group of tired-looking players before insisting on a game of soccer golf. All the while, he keeps his eyes on the prize. “Do you see all the lights?” he said dramatically, gesturing around the six-field facility, its immaculately kept grounds ringed by a typical Qatari tableau of desert and half-complete construction projects.

From there, Bora’s off to one of Doha’s expat-rich gated communities, where it’s his Serbian expat friend’s wife’s birthday. In an elegant home, adorned with leafy plants and family photos, smartly-dressed Serbs muse about life in Qatar over some of the kingdom’s preciously rare alcohol. Like most of Qatar’s residents, who come temporarily to tap into the gas-rich nation’s almost unfathomable wealth, they’re less effusive about their adopted home. It’s a decent enough place to raise children, said the host, a doctor, since Qatar is safe and they teach English in school. Another finds his adopted country of skyscrapers malls, and deserted sidewalks less than inspiring. “If I’m still here in 2022 [for the World Cup], I’m going to kill myself!” he said, laughing.

Meanwhile, out back by the swimming pool, Bora is regaling a captive audience with reminiscences on the glory days. “My players in ‘94 had character. [Marcelo] Balboa, [Alexi] Lalas. Only [Landon] Donovan and [Tim] Howard — maybe [Michael] Bradley — from today make team back then.” Before long, it’s time to leave. Bora’s headed to a nearby stadium to catch Egypt play Congo in a friendly match. The guard at the V.I.P. entrance astonishingly has never heard of Bora but lets him through anyway. Only a few hundred fans are expected after all.

Earlier in the day, international soccer’s ultimate adventurer tried to explain why, after bouncing around Mexico and China and Nigeria and the U.S., he has remained all this time in a country that’s been referred to more than once as the most boring on earth. Asked if money was a factor, Bora shook his head and paused a moment. As he began to answer, the usual bombast was missing. “Money is not important,” he said. “What’s important is that people respect what I did. For this I’m very — how do you say? — grateful.”

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