One of the largest countries in the world and yet one of its most sparsely populated, with only 1.9 inhabitants/km², Mongolia is not entirely suited to the pursuit of the globe’s most popular game, due mostly to its hilly terrain and extreme continental climate.
Steeped in the traditions of their national hero, the all-conquering Genghis Khan, the people of Mongolia have for many centuries devoted their sporting energies mainly to horse racing, archery and wrestling. These three disciplines form part of the national festival of Naadam, held every July, and stand testament to the country’s rich sporting culture, in which football has yet to establish itself.
The first step to making that a reality is to raise public awareness of the game around the country, with the support of government and agencies. “New infrastructures are essential if we are to achieve that,” the President of the Government Agency for Sport and Physical Exercise Choijgavaa Naranbaatar told FIFA.com. “Several projects are in the pipeline, among them a sports complex comprising a 30,000-seater stadium.”
As well as a lack of infrastructures, Mongolian football has a number of other obstacles it needs to overcome if it is to grow in stature, as Naranbaatar went on to explain.
“The first thing we need to do is change attitudes completely,” he said, before noting how few people go out jogging for example in the streets of the nation’s capital Ulan Bator, one of the most polluted cities in the world. Other handicaps are the lack of facilities, the high cost of training instructors and the predominantly amateur status of the clubs that make up the national football league.
Step by step
Solutions are at hand, however, among them the contribution FIFA is making by supporting the development of the game in Mongolia, which has been welcomed by many, not least the President of the National Olympic Committee Demchigjav Zagdsuren.
“We very much want to cooperate more with FIFA so that we can make Mongolia one of the world’s leading football nations,” said Zagdsuren, who has already seen International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge and the Mongolian President Tsakhia Elbegdorj sign a memorandum of understanding that outlines the country’s ambitions to bid for the Asian Games by 2018 and its first Olympic Games by 2040.
A symbol of the assistance provided by FIFA and built thanks to the country’s third Goal Project, the Mongolian Football Association’s national academy was opened in 2007. The Mongolian FA's president Ganbold Buyannemekh sees the facility as a valuable resource in his drive to develop the game across the nation.
“Spreading the sport of football across this huge country is no easy task but we’re getting there bit by bit,” he told us. “Thanks to the projects set up jointly with FIFA, we feel sure we are heading in the right direction. The idea is to promote football among young players and make elite football professional at the same time. Obviously it’s a long and winding road, and such is the climate here that we have to restrict competitions to just five months.”
The construction of an artificial pitch and a gym used solely for football, made possible by the country’s first three FIFA Goal Projects, are a reflection of Mongolia’s harsh climate.
“In November 2003, during the qualifying competition for the 2006 World Cup, the Maldives beat us 1-0 at home in sub-zero conditions. When we went there a month a later it was over 30°C and we lost 12-0,” explained Buyannemekh, who can smile about it now. “It was one of the national team’s biggest ever defeats and we hope it doesn’t happen again.”
A springboard to the future
Despite their lack of experience, the national side has made progress over the last ten years, a key factor in the development of the game across the country. “It goes without saying that the image and the results achieved by the national team have a decisive impact on the popularity of football here,” said coach Erdenepat Sandagdorj, whose team lie 182nd in the latest FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
“There is an obvious lack of international experience and it’s tough for us to exploit the potential of the players,” he continued, before pointing to the problem of having a league featuring only eight teams and where the average salary is a mere $200: “There aren’t enough competitions, which puts a brake on the development of the team, especially as most of the boys are amateurs.”
As part of its drive to raise the standard of elite football, the Mongolian FA is also nurturing the game at the other end of the scale. The most recent example of this came on 1 September when it teamed up with FIFA to stage a grassroots festival, the spearhead of the programmes promoted by world football’s governing body to spur the development of the youth game.
Gathering at Sukhbaatar Square in the heart of Ulan Bator, more than 200 children aged between six and 12 and representing clubs from the country’s five regions received training from around 20 local coaches, all of whom had taken a FIFA coaching course given by FIFA instructor Horst Kriete just a few days earlier.
Making light of overcast skies and temperatures well below the seasonal average – a reminder of the fickle nature of the Mongolian climate – the youngsters took part in activities and workshops over the course of three days, a small step towards what will hopefully be a brighter future.
Kriete for one is optimistic as to what that future might have in store for Mongolian football: “It’s an amazing setting. Holding this festival in such a symbolic and historically important location could be just the springboard the game needs here.”