It's past midnight when Bora Milutinovic answers the phone in Qatar, but no matter what time, no matter where he happens to be, the Bora optimism prevails.
"Super," says Bora Milutinovic, when asked about the early days of his latest challenge, coaching the Iraqi national team. He had just spent more than a week in Baghdad, scouting and training players who might join the foreign-based Iraqi players for training camp in Qatar to prepare for the Confederations Cup.
"I'm very excited," says the 64-year-old coach. "Iraq has players with great potential. What they lack is experience."
Shortly before the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Iraq league shut down and didn't resume until 2005. Yet Iraq managed to finish fourth at the 2004 Olympic Games (an under-23 tournament) and win the 2007 Asian Cup, a victory that earned it a spot in the Confederations Cup, where it was drawn in a first-round group with host South Africa, New Zealand and Spain.
Milutinovic was hired in April after Iraq was eliminated from 2010 World Cup qualifying. He is aided by Iraqi assistant coaches and an interpreter. Language and cultural barriers, however, don't exist for Milutinovic.
"There are no surprises in soccer," says the Serb whose home base has been in Mexico since 1972. "It's universal. All of us in soccer have shared experiences."
The Iraq appointment marks Milutinovic's eighth national team. He's in the history books as the only person to coach five different teams at the World Cup.
After ending his playing career in Mexico, he rose from club coach to Mexican national team coach for the World Cup Mexico hosted in 1986. A run to the quarterfinals – where it lost to Germany on penalty kicks — sparked a series of nationwide celebrations in a country coming off a devastating 1985 earthquake and suffering an ailing economy. Milutinovic was hailed a hero; the Mexican government awarded him the Aguila Azteca, the highest honor that can be bestowed on a foreigner.
Milutinovic took charge of Costa Rica three months before its World Cup debut in 1990. Wins over Scotland and Sweden sent the underdog, a nation of only 3 million, to the second round. The feat earned Milutinovic the moniker of Miracle Worker and made him the obvious choice to take over the USA, which had no pro league and feared becoming the first team to fail reaching the second round as a World Cup host.
At the 1994 World Cup, a tie against Switzerland and an upset of pre-tournament favorite Colombia sent the USA into the round of 16 against Brazil, which beat the USA, 1-0. After the loss to Brazil, the eventual title winner, Alexi Lalas was asked to speculate on Milutinovic's next move.
"Probably to coach the moon," Lalas answered. "And the moon will qualify for the World Cup."
While staying earth-bound, Milutinovic instead coached Nigeria at the 1998 World Cup and it won its group before exiting in the second round. Then he took charge of China, the world's most populous nation, which had never qualified for the World Cup. The man whose opening statement is usually "Call me Bora," became "Milu," because there's no r sound in Chinese.
When he succeeded in qualifying China for the 2002 World Cup co-hosted by South Korea and Japan, he became a hero in yet another nation.
The 2006 World Cup was the first since 1986 that Milutinovic wasn't a part of. Since his China stint, he has also coached Honduras and Jamaica.
For Milutinovic, a strong showing by the "Lions of Mesopotamia" in the Confederations Cup could lead to a sixth World Cup, as a flurry of coach hiring tends to precede each tournament.
(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Soccer America
(This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Soccer America magazine.)