Soccer's ultimate gypsy: Bora Milutinovic
After being held to a 0-0 draw by hosts South Africa in the opening game of the FIFA Confederations Cup, Iraq faces a daunting task in its next contest, against European champions Spain on Wednesday.
Spain, the No. 1 ranked team in the world, is coming off a 5-0 victory over New Zealand on Sunday and is riding a 33-game unbeaten run that dates back to November 2006, all of which spells big trouble for the reigning Asian Cup champions.
But defying the odds and overcoming stiff challenges is nothing new for Bora Milutinovic, Iraq's 64-year-old Serbian coach.
Milutinovic has enjoyed a storied career as a soccer manager, bouncing around between pro clubs and national teams since making his coaching debut with Mexican outfit Pumas in 1977.
Since then, the thoughtful Serb has earned the respect of his managerial brethren for his ability to take over underachieving teams and turn them into world beaters. In doing so, he has entered the record books as the only man in history to coach five different teams at the World Cup: Mexico (1986), Costa Rica (1990), the United States (1994), Nigeria (1998) and China (2002).
He is also the first coach to take four different teams beyond the first round of the World Cup - China in 2002 was his lone failure. Hence, his nickname, the Miracle Worker.
Coach's success 'quite incredible'
"He's probably the ultimate soccer gypsy, isn't he?" Dick Howard, noted Canadian soccer analyst, told CBCSports.ca. "The way he's done it, with taking over these [under-performing] countries and then getting them into the knockout stages, it's quite incredible."
Milutinovic's modus operandi is simple: settle in, do the work, and then move on to a new challenge before letting the grass grow under his feet. Little wonder that his current job with Iraq marks his 14th managerial post in the last 32 years.
Why does the Serb subscribe to this hit-and-run managerial philosophy?
"With Bora, he believes you can only affect players for a certain length of time. He just works in these three-year periods, and unlike a lot of coaches that will come in with a coaching staff of four or five assistants, Bora just comes in and does his thing," Howard explained.
Although on the surface it would appear Milutinovic flies by the seat of his pants, Howard insists there is a method to his madness.
"He has a set way of training players. He keeps it basic. He has excellent man management skills. He's very personable and multi-lingual and just a likeable character who has been one of the true characters of the game over the years," Howard said.
Milutinovic was hired in April after Iraq was eliminated from 2010 World Cup qualifying, which means the Confederations Cup is the biggest tournament the Iraqis will play in until the next Asian Cup in 2011.
To guarantee a spot in the next round, Iraq will likely have to earn four points from their next two games, which means, at the very least, earning a draw against Spain.
But even though his team is already being written off my most critics, the Serb is confident his team can gain a positive result against the Spanish, and leaves no doubt about the tactics he intends to use against the European champions.
"Iraq must not be afraid, this is one of the biggest challenges for us," Milutinovic told FIFA.com. "We are lucky to be here, lucky to be playing Spain. I will be happy to play a negative game and get a point."
With Milutinovic's track record of success a matter of public record, it would be a brave soul who would bet against the Serb's team earning a draw against Spain.