Janusz Michallik, who might have as much reason as anyone to toss a barb in Bora Milutinovic's direction, won't say a bad word about the national team coach who was dumped by U.S. Soccer last week.
Michallik, who made it to the final cut before being left off the World Cup roster last year, said Milutinovic was the victim of a change of thinking at the top levels of an administration that may not be fully aware of what it has lost.
"[U.S. Soccer] wants to change the whole system," Michallik, a 28-year old midfielder, said after learning of Milutinovic's "resignation" Friday morning. "It wasn't that Bora did not do the job with the national team. I might have as much reason as anyone to dislike him, but I became friends with him and thank him for the opportunity that he gave me. I respect him for what he did with the national team."
But now it is time to move on. Many in American soccer, including this columnist, have suggested the next task is to reorganize the game from the highest level. That requires a national team coach adept at winning the political battles within the sport's many constituencies, especially marshaling the reluctant college coaches who still don't understand their role in an international sport.
It was not a task Milutinovic could accomplish, first because of his lack of fluency in English, second because he never showed much interest in it.
Bora is a coach, first, second and always. He can spend hours working out a plan that allows Costa Rica to upset Scotland LTC (1990 World Cup) or the United States to stun Colombia last summer. He knows players and how to put them together. If he's interested in writing coaching manuals or organizing clinics, he managed to keep that a secret from most of us.
U.S. Soccer is openly pursuing the Sporting Lisbon and former Portugal national team Coach Carlos Queiroz to succeed Milutinovic. Those who know Queiroz are convinced that his abilities fall exactly in the areas needed to give the U.S. game the boost it needs. He has already won two Youth World Cups, proof that he knows young talent. He is reputedly a man who loves the challenge of a big project.
Michallik cautions, however, that replacing Bora on the bench is not going to be easy.
"For me, Bora was crucial at the national team level because we have to qualify for the 1998 World Cup," Michallik said. "That means winning in our region and nobody knows CONCACAF like Bora. He understands it completely, from the countries to the players to the referees and the administrators."
Milutinovic, of course, will have no trouble finding another job. The most likely scenario may have Bora headed for his former French League club Monaco, which has struggled through a long 1994-95 campaign. Milutinovic could spend a couple of seasons in Monaco, then be readily available to perform his World Cup act sometime in late 1997 after the 32 qualifiers are known. You can bet that there will be a line of nations from the Middle East and Africa who would love Bora's magic touch.
For Michallik, the exit of Milutinovic probably marks the end of an era, too. The midfielder isn't on the national team roster to face Belgium next Saturday in Molenbeek under caretaker coach Steve Sampson. Michallik said he will wait until June, where the European clubs sign players for the 1995-96 season, before deciding upon his future. It's unlikely he will get back to the
national team, given the combination of his age and a new coaching administration.
After giving two years to the United States, then coping stoically with missing the party at the last minute, Michallik still sees Milutinovic in positive terms. That is the highest form of tribute any coach could wish.
Most of those who came in contact with the charming, unpredictable tactician who put United States soccer on the world map will remember Bora for his smile and that little twinkle in his eye after an unexpected U.S. achievement.
And we certainly look forward to seeing him again in 1998, although he'll be smiling about someone else's upset victory during that World Cup.