Legendary soccer coach forged lasting bonds, enduring hopes
Premier Li Keqiang will meet a host of celebrities in BelgradeonThursday, but this will bemorethan just a routine diplomatic assignment.
There is a strong sports connection, especially in soccer, between China and Serbia that is rooted in success on and off the field.
The Chinese Football Association says that 23 coaches from Serbia, including the former Yugoslavia, have worked with variousChinese nationalteams and league clubs since 2000.
And China’s proudest soccer moment, when it qualified for the World Cup in 2002, was in large part due to the efforts of Serbian coach Bora Milutinovic.
Milutinovic’s modesty means that he ranks himself as the second-most-famous Serb among Chinese people. But with respect to Novak Djokovic, the world’s No 1 tennis player, Milutinovic’s claim to be onlyNo 2 could be legitimately disputed.
After guiding China to the World Cup finals, the 74-yearold Milutinovic has become a phenomenally popular figure in China, where his micro blog has more than 6 million followers — more than 80 percent of Serbia’s population. He is instantly recognizable wherever he goes in China, where he is hailed as a sports hero.
He has traveled the world to continue his coaching career, but Milutinovic, better known as Milu in China, is still involved in Chinese soccer. His latest role is as a technical adviser with a second-tier league club, Guangdong SunrayCaveFC.
“If there is one country I like, it is China. So whenever China needs me, I will always be ready to help,” he said.
Milutinovic is one of only two coaches, the other being Brazil’s Carlos Alberto Parreira, to have coached five teams to the World Cup — Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States, Nigeria and China.
Milu may be the best-known Serb coach, but others have left their mark as well.
Slobodan Santrac was among the first group of Serbian coaches to ply their trade in China. Santrac led Shandong Lunengtowintheleaguechampionship and the CFA Cup title in his first season in 2000 and was named coach of the year. Milorad Kosanovic stepped in to coach Dalian Shide in 2000 and helped the club win three league titles from 2001 to 2003 — the only coach, Chinese or foreign, to achieve the feat.
Some say that discipline, expertise and adaptabilityhave given Serbs the background to succeed in China.
“I thinkoneof thekey factors is they have a down-to-earth mindset and are willing to learn the actual situation of Chinese soccer,” said Fan Zhiyi, China’s national captain duringMilu’s tenure in 2002.
Dragomir Okuka, who coached top league club Jiangsu Sainty from 2011 to 2013, echoed Fan’s view.
“Milu proved that Serbian coaches can be successful in China and really opened the door for us in 2002. We worked on his success,” the 2012 coach of the year said.