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Pivot Man for US Soccer

If the American team does well, so does the sport - and so does Coach Milutinovic

(Page 2 of 2)

But they arrived, to live a remarkably normal life. They ate ``American food from President Truman,'' Milutinovic says. In Bor, ``I was very, very happy. I play all day.''

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He played soccer, Ping-Pong, and chess - lots of chess, which taught him to think many moves ahead, just as in soccer. The boys played soccer in the street with a pig bladder, blown up and stuffed inside a sock.

The difficult years don't weigh heavily on him. ``He's so mentally healthy, it's incredible,'' says his wife, Maria de Carmen, an artist and decorator.

Milutinovic finished his formal schooling as a radio and television technician and joined his brothers Milos and Milorad on Belgrade's famed Partizan soccer team. The three brothers played at the same time for the Yugoslav national team - an unprecedented feat. To this day, he admires his brother Milos as the greatest player he has ever seen.

One friend who knew Milos said the wiry, graceful forward ``moved like a ghost through the opposition with the ball.'' Bora, on the other hand, was more like a crankshaft.

``He was an engine that would work-work-work all the time,'' another friend says. ``He could play 90 minutes and not get tired.''

Milutinovic went on to play for teams in Switzerland, France, Monaco, and, in 1972, arrived in Mexico to play for the Pumas. By 1976 he was coaching them.

Milutinovic brings to his coaching the same joy he felt on the streets of Bor. ``Play! Play!'' he commands. ``Opa!'' (Jump up! Have fun!) The American players were accustomed to a less buoyant approach; he set them free.

At the National Team Training Center here, he's a hands-on coach, actively playing and routinely out-maneuvering his athletes. He is fiercely and relentlessly competitive. When morning practice is over, he recruits players and assistant coaches to play ``head soccer'' or ``soccer tennis'' until they are too exhausted to continue.

The only person who seems to get the better of him in a face-off is his cherished eight-year-old daughter, Darinka.

``He tries to be strict with her,'' Maria says. ``But he just laughs and laughs.''

Milutinovic is an information junkie, clipping stories from newspapers in five languages and dispatching his assistant coaches on scouting missions around the world. It is very important, he says, to learn everything you can about other teams.

He remembers everything - if it relates to soccer.

``He keeps asking, `When did we get married?' '' Maria says.

But Bora can tell you about any game in the World Cup, who scored, and who passed - using which leg. He can diagram games that happened years ago.

If he doesn't have a pen to diagram a play, he'll use the salt and pepper and the candlesticks. He's been known to use a marking pen on a dinner plate.

Milutinovic charms, but reveals little of himself except in quick snapshots: Not long ago, in a crowded side room at a restaurant in Laguna Beach, Calif., US team candidates cheered defender Alexi Lalas in his television singing debut, courtesy of ESPN.

As the players filtered out of the stifling bar into the chilly night, Milutinovic spotted forward Joe-Max Moore wearing a T-shirt.

``Stop,'' the coach said gently. ``Come here.''

He removed his own jacket and held it while Moore slipped into it.

``Now you go.''