For a country which craves World Cup experience, it is fitting that one of the tournament’s greatest ever coaches, Bora Milutinovic, now calls Qatar home.
The “Miracle Worker” is the man who was a penalty shootout away from taking Mexico to the semi-finals in 1986, saw his Costa Rica team beat Scotland and Sweden in 1990 and watched his USA side progress to the knockout stage in 1994, helping kindle fresh interest in football in the States.
Alongside Brazilian Carlos Alberta Perreira he is the only person to have coached five different sides at World Cup finals. He guided Nigeria at the 1998 finals and China in 2002.
A cult hero, Milutinovic’s name is almost as much part of World Cup folklore as Franz Beckenbauer, Mario Kempes, Johan Cruyff and Zinedine Zidane.
Although he has no official coaching role in Qatar, Milutinovic is regularly seen at matches in Doha and travels to see games across Asia.
Who then better to ask if Qatar can realise a nation’s – and World Cup 2022 organisers – dream and reach the finals for the first time in Russia in two years’ time?
On Thursday, Qatar begin the Asian Football Confederation’s third round of qualifiers, having powered through the second round, topping their group winning seven games out of eight.
Now they are playing with the AFC big boys and have been drawn in Group A, which contains Iran, South Korea, China, Uzbekistan and Syria.
Qatar are 80th in the FIFA world rankings. Their seeding suggests Qatar should finish fifth, form means a chance of finishing third and forcing themselves into a play-off for Russia, and hope equates to securing one of the top two spots in the group and automatic passage to the World Cup finals.
“I think in this group there are two favourites, South Korea and Iran,” says Milutinovic.
But, he adds, if they falter, Qatar is the team best placed to take advantage.
“Qatar in qualification, they were the best team. They only lost once. Qatar has a new coach, a new team and they have the players who can adapt.
“The minimum should be third; Qatar needs to seize the minimum.”
One concern he has though is the schedule.
The first game is in Tehran, away to the group favourites and in front of its formidable crowd.
“Iran has an advantage — the stadium. It is the most difficult stadium in Asia,” he says wistfully, because of the atmosphere.
A home game against Uzbekistan follows five days later, then in October Qatar find themselves away to the second seeded team in the group and World Cup perennials, South Korea.
A poor start could crush Qatar’s dream of avoiding becoming the first side since Italy in 1934 to host a World Cup without ever before playing in a finals.
A good start though and Qatar will have the backing of the public.
Milutinovic says Qatar should learn from Iceland’s example during the Euros and make sure the team and the supporters make “a connection” for the home matches.
– Rod Stewart, Hugo Sanchez –
The Serb is engaging company.
An invitation for a quick chat about Qatar’s World Cup dreams quickly turns into several coffees, tea, lunch and lots of talk.
Ground covered includes Rod Stewart, the 1991 Soviet coup, Eric Wynalda, England’s last disastrous World Cup campaign, a deadly explosion at a Northern Irish checkpoint, Germany’s 1974 World Cup winners versus the 2014 team, his footballing brothers, wearing a bullet proof vest in Baghdad, Hugo Sanchez and Tom Jones.
Milutinovic scribbles furiously on napkins, drawing penalty areas and showing positions he would like his players to take up.
He speaks a mixture of English, Spanish and French. He interrupts himself to take calls from Serbia, bumps into a Chinese family and speaks Mandarin.
He turns 72 on September 7, but has the energy of a man half his age and would clearly relish a return to international football.
Asked if he would have taken the recent England or Belgium vacancies, he says: “I would have gone like this,” pointing to his t-shirt and shorts.
And despite talking for four hours, he says he has happily given little away.
“I’ve done my job. I spoke a lot but said nothing,” Milutinovic says with a smile.
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