Milutinovic was out to win hearts and minds

Updated: 2011-10-11 08:00

By Tang Zhe (China Daily)

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Bora Milutinovic knew one thing for sure: China's biggest obstacle was its own mindset.

Once that was cured, China was on its way to the 2002 World Cup.

The first and only coach to guide the Chinese men's soccer team to the World Cup, Milutinovic focused on healing his team psycholgicaly, says Jin Zhiyang, an assistant during that era.

"The biggest obstacle on our team's way to the World Cup was not the ability of the players, but their mental problems," said Jin, who coached the Chinese Universiade team at the Shenzhen University Games.

"We always fell at the feet of average teams, instead of strong rivals like Japan, Republic of Korea (ROK) and Iran, in key matches in the past. We lost to Indonesia (in a World Cup qualifier) in 1957, we were eliminated by New Zealand and Hong Kong in 1981 and 1985, and in 1989 and 1992, we lost to Qatar twice in the qualifiers to miss the World Cup."

Indeed, Chinese soccer has little to be proud of before or since Milutinovic, and the Serb became something of a national hero during his time as coach.

The team lost all three of its group games, but even so, Jin was on hand for a 10th anniversary celebration held by the Liaoshen Evening Post and RiseSun Real Estate Group.

"It is the only thing that could make us proud in Chinese soccer," Jin said. "Milutinovic taught us 'attitude is everything' and what 'happy soccer' is.

"It was the third time some players ... had been in World Cup qualifiers. But (unlike previous coaches) Milutinovic was quite good at adjusting players' psychological status. He told us all the things we did were to make sure we could play at our normal level in games, (rather than focusing on victories), and it helped the players shrug of the pressure."

The Chinese national team played 41 international games under Milutinovic from February of 2000 to the summer of 2002.

The results weren't always great, and there were calls for the Serb to resign as the losses mounted.

"Whenever I take over a team, the first thing for me is to find out if the team is psychologically healthy," said Milutinovic, who is now working as a consultant for the Qatar Football Association. "The team will walk into a wrong path where all they want is to win the game - instead, we need to find out how to win the game by playing with different opponents and analyze it with cool mind."