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Milutinovic Urges More International Experience
When veteran Yugoslav coach Bora Milutinovic came to China in 2000 he was hailed as a saviour for the Chinese National Menís Soccer Team. The preceding 40 odd years had seen China make seven unsuccessful attempts to get into the World Cup.

Two and half years have now passed. Milutinovic, the man who led China into its first World Cup has now returned from South Korea and bowed out the team. China lost all three of its matches in Group C without scoring a single goal. In the light of this poor showing, even if he may not actually be regarded as a loser, the halo of this 'magic coach' may have slipped a little.

Before Milutinovic's departure, 21st Century Sports Weekly reporter Ran Xiongfei obtained this exclusive interview.

Ran: In Chinese eyes, parting is always a sentimental time. Do you feel this way now that you are about to leave.

Milutinovic: Well life is like that, meeting and saying farewell but things must move on. Today I leave China and tomorrow I shall see the same sun rising in Mexico.

Ran: What will your next stop be?

Milutinovic: It has to be Mexico. Although I was born in Yugoslavia, my wife and my whole family are all in Mexico now.

Ran: Will you give up soccer? In China, a man is supposed to retire at the age of 55.

Milutinovic: Age is not important. What does matter is whether or not you still have a passion for your career even if you have been doing something for a long time. Once I have returned to Mexico I should like to continue to be involved in soccer over there if I can.

Ran: What are your comments on Chinaís performance in the World Cup finals?

Milutinovic: Though we didnít score any goals, I really must say that the players have tried their best, so we donít have any regrets. Do remember that before I came here, China was ranked only 86th in the world. We have now improved this by 55 places to 31st. Very few teams have seen such an improvement in just a couple of years. I only hope that the Chinese team will do better next time.

Ran: After the World Cup, what is Chinaís proper position in the soccer circles?

Milutinovic: Entering the World Cup is only the first step. There are many young talented players in China but if they donít have the opportunity to compete at a full international level it will be extremely difficult for them to make further progress.

So in my opinion I think that if it is considered feasible, more Chinese players should be encouraged to go abroad to have the opportunity to participate in the high-level international tournaments which are necessary to raise the standard of their game.

Take Saudi Arabia for example. It is a strong team in an Asian context and was a runner-up in the Asian Cup. But competing at World Cup level they conceded the highest number of points. Their team members rarely have the opportunity to compete at a full international level.

In a nutshell, soccer is the sort of sport that relies heavily on an accumulation of experience. Nothing is gained by playing against weak competition. Only challenging international matches can properly hone the skills of an international-level soccer player.

Ran: For China, the World Cup has been a touchstone that has revealed many problems in the national team. The fans have not been satisfied with the teamís performance. Some have even attributed Chinaís poor showing to your training. How would you respond to this?

Milutinovic: What really matters is to identify the fundamental causes of the problems and decide on the best course of action so that Chinaís soccer can move forward. Since my contract of employment with the China Soccer Association has expired regrettably it will not now be up to me to address these issues. However, I should like to emphasize that, more participation in international competition against strong teams is the route China must take to achieve results. In addition, a soccer league to provide matches for the youngsters should be established as soon as possible.

Ran: In the World Cup finals both Japan and South Korea had notable successes. Japan qualified for the knockout rounds while South Korea even reached the semi-finals. Whatís your opinion on the gap between China and its two near neighbours?

Milutinovic: Well when we drew with South Korea in Inchon on April 27, nobody was talking about a gap between the two teams. May I remind those who feel that China has fallen far behind South Korea of two points.

Firstly, China didnít have the benefit of being the host country. This is something that can significantly influence the game. As South Koreaís coach Guus Hiddink said, ďCompared with our competitors we have had twelve players on the field. The wonderful support of our fans is worth a twelfth man to us.Ē

Secondly, people should not forget that before this round, South Korea participated in the World Cup five times but lost all of its matches. All in all, China should be encouraged rather than depressed by the achievements of Japan and South Korea. The Chinese team should be patient and work painstakingly from now on in preparation for the next World Cup.

Ran: When China was playing in the World Cup, the TV cameras caught you with a helpless and dejected expression more than once. This rather contrasts with your frequent public statements declaring that you were satisfied with Chinaís performance. Did the TV capture your true feelings?

Milutinovic: No. There were so many unpredictable events on the field such as Dundee defender Fan Zhiyi and Manchester City defender Sun Jihaiís getting hurt. What you saw on TV were just instinctive responses in the heat of the moment rather than a window on any hidden feelings.

A soccer match is a live test of strength. The fans might expect individual players to work wonders on the pitch but results are actually founded in team skills and training. I know the players have given of their best. If our strikers had managed to seize even a single opportunity, we might have netted a goal. With tighter defensive play we might not have lost so many points. Why didnít it happen? The answer can only be found in the teamís day-to-day training.

Ran: The China v. Brazil game in which striker Ronaldo and midfielder Rivaldo both scored for Brazil mirrored the events of Chinaís warm-up matches against Uruguay and Portugal. So why were the problems revealed in the warm-up matches not solved timely? Did this show that the team was not well enough prepared for the World Cup?

Milutinovic: Not exactly. For instance France was acknowledged as having a strong team able to field some of the best strikers from English Premiership, French First Division and Italian Series A clubs. But France did not score at all in the World Cup finals. This is soccer. If we were to watch the matches rationally we could accept that anything could happen.

Yes, it is true that we made mistakes in the finals that were similar to those we made in the warm-up matches. But viewed from a different perspective it was the strength of the teams we faced that forced us into committing the same errors.

Ran: Of Chinaís three matches in the World Cup finals, which one are you most satisfied with and which one are you most disappointed in?

Milutinovic: Against Costa Rica we lost points twice within 5 minutes and this sealed our fate. However, this is typical of what happens in soccer matches. Not only China but also many other teams have been in the same shoes.

In all honesty, the game against Brazil made quite a reasonable impression on the fans. Speaking of Brazil and Turkey, I should like to remind you of the public opinion of these two teams just before the World Cup finals. Many people thought that Brazil was on a low and that Turkey was not in good shape either. Nevertheless, it turned out that Brazil went on to win the championship while Turkey came in third. This is a very interesting phenomenon.

Ran: What youíve done for soccer here will not be forgotten. You will always be welcome in China. We are friends forever.

Milutinovic: Of course we are! I have such pleasant memories of my two years coaching in China.

I know I must leave now, but China has become my home too. I have been grateful for the unwavering support of my Chinese colleagues. I should like to take the opportunity to wish them a happy life. Iím confident that they will continue to bring real pleasure to the Chinese people.

(21世纪体育报 [21st Century Sports Weekly], translated by Shao Da for china.org.cn, August 20, 2002)

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