Heady Ambition

updated 05/16/1994 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/16/1994 01:00AM

SOCCER COACH BORA MILUTINOVIC IS fluent in French, Spanish, Italian and Serbo-Croatian—but his English is halting. So how does he communicate with the mostly monolingual players on his U.S. national soccer team? "No problem," he says. "If something is not good, I say, 'Mira, look. Do like this.' I don't coach with this, I coach with this," says Bora, first pointing to his mouth, then raising his foot.

A lot is riding on Bora Milutinovic's highly expressive feet. Starting June 17, billions of people worldwide will be tuned to their TVs for coverage of soccer's World Cup—the mega-event that virtually everyone outside America regards as the Super Bowl, World Series and NBA finals rolled into one—and for the first time ever the monthlong tournament is being held in cities around the U.S. Bora's assignment: to ensure a respectable showing by the host country team.

This is no easy chore in a nation with a weak soccer tradition: Only once in the past 40 years has a U.S. team even made the World Cup final round. But Bora, hired in 1991, brings with him a reputation as a miracle worker. In 1986 he took an underpowered Mexican national team all the way to the quarterfinals. He performed similar magic again in 1990 for Costa Rica.

"We needed a guy to roll up his sleeves and get out on the field with the players," says U.S. Soccer Federation executive director Hank Steinbrecher. "I wasn't overly worried about Bora's English. Bora casts a very big shadow."

Orphaned as an infant during World War II, Bora was reared by an aunt in the small Serbian town of Bajina Basta. At 17, he joined his older brothers Milosh and Milorad on Partizan Belgrade, one of Europe's top soccer clubs. "When I remember myself," he says, "I am playing soccer. That is my life."

In 1972, after three years in the French league, Bora moved to Mexico, becoming head coach of the Puma club in 1977 and leading the team to two national championships. It was in Mexico City that he met his future wife, Maria del Carmen Mendez, while playing pickup soccer in the backyard of the house where her family lived.

The Milutinovics, who keep a home in Mexico City, currently live in Laguna Niguel, Calif., near Mission Viejo in a stylish hillside house cooled by ocean breezes. An interior designer, Maria has decorated it with trophies from their travels: Oriental rugs, elephant figurines from India, embroideries from Burma.

But for all their peripatetic life, the Milutinovics are a close family. Over a hearty lunch of seafood bisque, black bean casserole, homemade cheese and salad, the couple talk with pride about the accomplishments of Darinka, their 8-year-old daughter. In addition to her ballet and tennis, Darinka has been showing an interest in soccer. "I tell her I'll help her," says Bora. "But she says, 'Go. I know what I'm doing.' "

Maria smirks with amusement. "It's your stubborn Yugoslavian blood," she says.

"Or," says Bora laughing, "your stubborn Mexican blood."

He gets no such sass from his players, who call him Captain Video because he spends so much time watching footage of their games. He regularly defaces hotel TV screens with Magic Marker arrows and circles, à la John Madden, while playing tapes for players on the road. Bora has been trying to introduce a Latin style of play, involving more lateral passing and emphasizing possession. "You need to see many moves ahead," says Bora, who likens soccer to chess on grass.

"Playing for Bora is a whole new level of soccer," says midfielder Claudio Reyna, 20. And a whole new level of discipline too. When defender Alexi Lalas arrived at camp with his red hair trailing down his back, Bora told him to cut it. Says Lalas: "I was like, 'Excuse me? This is America. It's a free country.' I bitched and complained—then I cut it." The coach, whom Lalas refers to as "either the Maharishi-Yoda-Zen guy of soccer or a total lunatic," likes to test his players. "He's letting you know it's not just about how you kick the ball but what kind of person you are," says Lalas.

Soccer experts suggest that Bora will have performed another of his miracles if he propels this U.S. team past its first three matches, but he remains cagey about his ambitions. "The goal is to win the World Cup," he says with a grin. "But we take it one game at a time."

Don't be fooled. Beneath Bora's mellow rhetoric lurks a fierce desire for victory. Just ask Maria, who notes that when Bora plays Darinka in dominoes, he always wins. But would he cheat his own daughter at dominoes? Maria just shrugs. Bora smiles but doesn't deny it. "I like to win," he says.

WILLIAM PLUMMER
KURT PITZER in Mission Viejo

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