Leg­endary soc­cer coach forged last­ing bonds, en­dur­ing hopes

China Daily (Canada) - - CHINA - By SUN XIAOCHEN sunx­i­aochen@chi­nadaily.com.cn

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.

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