Bora Milutinovic stepped down as China's coach on Thursday but vowed to continue coaching after leading his fifth team to the World Cup finals and the only one not to have made it to the second round.
The 57-year-old Serbian, whose contract expired after China's 3-0 defeat by Turkey in their final group C game, gave no clue as to his future plans, saying only that he needed a break after 30 long and very lucrative months in China.
Despite China's failure to score a single goal in the opening round, Milutinovic can now rest on his achievement as the man who took the world's most populous nation to its first ever World Cup finals.
"Now I am finished with the Chinese team. I was very happy to work with them. Now I need a rest and will see what my future is," he told reporters after the Turkey game.
"If I retire, I am going to die," said the former Yugoslavian professional player who also took Mexico, Costa Rica, the United States and Nigeria to World Cup finals.
Asked if he wanted to lead a sixth team to the finals, he said: "No, I think a seventh."
But he declined to say if he had any job offers.
"When you lose, no one offers you nothing," he joked. "If somebody has interest, okay, if no interest, okay."
Milutinovic will return to China with his team before watching the rest of the World Cup in Japan and then travelling in China with his family, who live in Mexico.
Although criticised by some fans for his laid-back coaching style and conservative tactics, he is sure to receive a hero's welcome.
"He made an enormous contribution to Chinese football," said Li Ying, 22, a fan from the northeastern city of Dalian.
"Although we didn't perform that well, China is 100 times better than before. We wish he would stay for a few more years."
When he took over from Briton Bob Houghton in January 2000, Milutinovic found a team of under-achievers who regarded their national duties as a political yoke.
Determined to boost morale, he preached a new creed of "happy soccer" -- a bold move in a country accustomed to authoritarian coaches and strict, military-style training drills.
But his tactics paid off when China breezed through the World Cup qualifying round to win its first berth at the finals, ending 44 years of frustrating near misses.
Known in Mandarin simply as "Milu", he is now a household name in a country of 1.3 billion people.
His craggy face, topped by a shaggy Beatles mop, beams out from myriad advertisements for everything from air conditioners and rice wine to electronic translation aids.
In the process, he has earned up to $3 million from sponsorship deals on top of an annual salary estimated at $800,000, according to Chinese football media.
BACK DOWN TO EARTH
The China Sports Daily said Milutinovic had lost his immortal status in China after his team's lacklustre performance.
"We can't obliterate Milu's achievement for bringing the Chinese team to the World Cup," it said. "But his work cannot match the steadfast (Japan coach) Philippe Troussier and (South Korea coach) Guus Hiddink." But most Chinese fans paid tribute to his efforts to introduce young talent to the Chinese team despite resistance from conservative soccer officials.
"His most important achievement was to bring young players into the Chinese side. We can't have all these old players on the pitch," said Pan Guowei, 52, a businessman from the eastern province of Jiangsu.
"He thinks about the future of Chinese football," he said. "For that, we will always be grateful."
Milutinovic wished his charges well.
"Our team is very young I am sure they have a future," he said. "It was good to make the first step to the finals. It would have been nice to have got the second step."