FIVE days before the United States plays its opening match in the 1994 World Cup, reporters jam the video room at the US National Team Training Center in Mission Viejo, Calif. The focus of their attention is head coach Bora Milutinovic.
A TV reporter, eager for a shred of insight about the enigmatic coach, thrusts a microphone at him and blurts, ``Bora, who are you?''
The baffled coach produces nothing poetic for the news at seven. But Milutinovic (pronounced MEEL-oo-teen-oh-vich) - relaxed, smiling, and dripping with sweat after a team practice and an impromptu goal-kicking session with pro-basketball star Vlade Divac - might well have said: ``I am a happy boy playing soccer in the streets.'' He has traveled far from his Yugoslavian village and accomplished much, but he has never lost the joy of playing soccer.
Three years ago, US soccer federation officials searched the world for a coach who could build a team worthy of the 1994 World Cup's host country.
This coach had to be extraordinary, someone who could forge a tough team of American players without the crucible of a competitive professional league. He must accomplish the task in the belly of a culture that lacks passion for 0-to-0 scores and refuses to embrace the concept of no helmets, no hands, and no timeouts for commercials.
``The only man who can do it is Bora Milutinovic,'' advised legendary German coach Franz Beckenbauer, adding his recommendation to a growing pile of unanimous praise.
Milutinovic, Serbian by birth, Mexican by choice, and citizen of the world by temperament, had earned the title of ``miracle worker'' by coaching two nations past expectations in two World Cups - Mexico to a sixth-place finish on home ground in 1986 and tiny Costa Rica to the second round at Italy in 1990. That's what the US needed - a man who could turn derision into respect.
Milutinovic accepted the challenge. He calls himself ``a soldier of the federation.''
US Soccer President Alan Rothenberg and Secretary General Hank Steinbrecher call Milutinovic a genius. They also refer to him as a teacher, a schemer, a master motivator, colorful and charismatic. Above all, they call him a superior human being. But if the US team fails to emerge from the scramble of the 24-team first round, the miracle man could be chopped liver.
``Bora is fundamentally important to the success of the US team,'' Steinbrecher says. ``Therefore he is important to the success of soccer in the United States.''
For Milutinovic, the next few weeks will be a wild ride.
His life started that way. Velibor Milutinovic was born in the Yugoslavian mountain village of Bajina Basta, which had been overwhelmed by the maelstrom of a Balkan civil war raging concurrently with World War II. As Serbian Partisans and Serbian Chetniks killed each other, and the Nazis killed both, Milutinovic's father died at the hands of a countryman a few blocks from his home; the boy's mother died a year later.
Milutinovic was an orphan, but he wasn't alone. For a while, he and his three older brothers and sister lived with his mother's parents. Then, in an improbable journey reminiscent of a Disney movie, under Allied bombing and in the path of German retreats and counteroffensives, the youngsters set out for the home of an aunt and uncle in the copper-mining town of Bor, 125 miles to the east. The children, with Bora on his sister's back, hid in caves and scavenged for food.
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.''
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.''