His top goalkeeper, Ike Shorunmu had a broken arm.
The media demanded his head. In friendlies, his players had done nothing creative with their feet. And for democracy to overcome military rule in Nigeria, some believe, it was better for his team to fail than to succeed in the World Cup.
Bora Milutinovic coached his fourth team in soccer’s world championship, and if he was concerned about any of this, he hid it well, beneath his Beatle haircut and glasses that are as thick as the intrigue surrounding Nigeria’s slumping entrance into the world’s most popular sporting event.
At lunch, fewer than 48 hours after Nigeria was humbled by 5-1 in a friendly match with the Netherlands, Bora laughed and joked and played Ping-Pong with his star midfielder, Sunday Oliseh.
Those who knew him well believed Milutinovic was using that approach to prepare for Nigeria’s Group D World Cup opener against Spain.
Many did not believed that Bora had been experimenting, using decoy maneuvers and smartly trying to lower expectations for a team that advanced to the second round of the 1994 World Cup and won the gold medal at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
In the buildup to the 1998 World Cup, Germany Coach Berti Vogts predicted that Nigeria would be the ”secret surprise” and that, at some positions, ”Nigeria had even better players than Brazil.”
Trust the Nigerian Media. They criticised the gaffer constructively. The coach was hired in December 1997 on a $35,000 a month, according to the Nigerian soccer federation, plus a bonus of $250,000 if the Super Eagles won the World Cup.
Nigeria is a notoriously impatient country, where coaches are changed like shirts. Bora’s predecessor, the Frenchman Philippe Troussier (then coach of South Africa), was sacked in September 1997.
His top goalie, Shorunmu, was out with a broken arm. And he did not know about the reliability of his magnificent striker, Nwankwo Kanu, who was found to have a deformed heart valve after the Atlanta Olympics.
Kanu underwent surgery at the Cleveland Clinic – his countrymen donated money for the operation – and he has made a comeback at age 21 that many thought was impossible.
Alas! The Super Eagles were the surprise winners of Group D, dubbed the Group of Death, as Spain once again failed to live up to high pre-cup expectations. Nigeria beat them 3-2 in a thrilling game and moved on to the next round together with Paraguay.
But they met their Waterloo in Denmark in the second round, crashing 4-1.
It was end of the road for Bora as Super Eagles gaffer.