World Soccer: Is it true someone suggested raising a statue of you next to the statue of Mao in Tiananmen Square?
Bora Milutinovic: After what I have achieved in sucha short time, maybe they should put a statue of me in place of Mao!
Did winning your Asian qualifying group change anything in particular for you?
The only difference is that even in China now I can’t go out in the street or walk into a restaurant without provoking a riot – a happy one, of course. Otherwise, life overall is much the same. I am working in football, which is my life, I have plenty of friends, enough money. And China will go to the World Cup for the first time in football history. What more could youwant?
China must have tremendous resources, but no one else has got them to the finals. What has been the secret of your success?
I think my strength as a coach is in adapting the way I have always worked to the temperament and lifestyle of the players I find. In China, for example, there are attitudes and habits totally different to anything I’ve come across before. But the people also possess wonderful qualities to work with. For example, because the Chinese – from a very young age – are used to listening to their leaders, they have a great sense of personal and collective discipline. That’s perfect for anyone who has to organise a Chinese football team.
There must be drawbacks as well?
Certainly. Football is a team game in which players must sometimes take individual responsibility on the pitch. China has some highly talented players but too often they are reluctant to take personal initiative. Sometimes that is essential to give you an element of surprise against the opposition.
What were the Chinese team like when you arrived in January 2000?
They had played only one international in the whole of the previous year – a 1-0 win against Iranin Shanghai – so there was no sense of team spirit. Understandably. I also knew that because Asian teams have little contact with top-level and European football, they would be short on experience. It’s only in the past few years that they have had a professional League, and only three footballers play abroad – Fan Zhiyi at Crystal Palace in England and now Dundee in Scotland, and two in the German Second Division: Yang Chen at Eintracht Frankfurt and Xie Hui at Aachen. So, all in all, they weren’t very competitive.
What were your initial targets?
The first thing I had to persuade the federation to do was arrange a lot of friendly matches; I think we have played more than 25 in two and a half years. We also had to arrange matches against different types of opposition so that the players could get used to coping with different styles. After that, it was a question of building the right spirit in the squad.
When did you think you were turning the corner?
It was a gradual process. There were two key moments. The first was atthe Asian Cup in the autumn of last year when we lost 3-2 – deservedly – to Japan in the semi-finals. That was the first time, oddly, perhaps, I saw the players starting to believe in themselves. Then I remember one of our first matches in the World Cup qualifying tournament, against Indonesia last May. We were 1-0 down at half-time but recovered to win 5-1. Suddenly I saw we had developed the confidence that we could go all the way to the finals. Then do you know that 500 million people watched on television the 1-0 win over Oman that got us to the finals?
How would you judge the team now?
They are playing better than even I expected and our World Cup qualifying record – 12 wins and one draw from 14 matches – shows how consistent we have become. I think some people have said I was lucky. But in those games we scored 38 goals and conceded only five. I think that is more than lucky. We also have some excellent young players. At the World Youth Cup earlier this year we were beaten 2-1 in the second round by Argentina – who were hosts and went on to win it. I have already promoted three of those players into the senior squad.
What can the rest of the world expect of China at the World Cup finals?
I have told the players to go away and enjoy the success of qualifying because there will be plenty of hard work ahead in the next eight months. But team spirit is good, and I know the players will work hard with no distractions. After that, well, I have been a national team manager now for more than 260 matches so I think I know – better than anyone – that anything can happen.
Is taking China to the finals the greatest achievement of your career?
That’s hard to tell – there have been so many! Beating Scotland 1-0 in Italy with Costa Rica, when I had taken over the team only two months before and they had never been to the finals, was a pretty big achievement. I suppose that managing China to the finals for the first time is a historic event in football terms. But my achievement, for what it’s worth, is not what matters most. What’s really important is that the players have achieved their ambition and that the Chinese people have something to celebrate.
This interview appeared in the December 2001 issue of World Soccer