With a population of less than three million, Mongolia is not usually associated with significant footballing achievement. The world's second largest landlocked country – neighbouring Kazakhstan is the largest - Mongolia have yet to establish a professional league where their young talents can emerge and develop. Every cloud has a silver lining, though, and as the Mongolian supporters have been longingly hoping for, a promising star is quickly making a name for himself.
Murun Altankhuyag, one of the country's promising young stars, secured an eye-catching two-year contract with Thai first division side Krabi FC at the start of this year, making him the first professional footballer from the emerging Asian nation. The 24-year-old striker, who previously played with university side Central Methodist Eagles in the United States, didn't conceal his excitement when speaking to FIFA.com in an exclusive interview.
"I have been looking to become a professional footballer for many years," Altankhuyag said. "And finally I have made it. I am so happy because all I have ever wanted - to eat, sleep and train - has been secured. I know this is just the start of my career and I will work hard. I still have a long road to travel."
Krabi FC open their campaign at Nakhon Prathom on 23 February and Altankhuyag is already itching to showcase his talents for his new club. "I want to do my best and help my team as much as possible," he continued. "I especially want to play for my national team because the Mongolian people want to see me play."
Born in the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, Altankhuyag started playing football at the age of 12. With horse-racing and wrestling the dominant sports in the country, kids usually begin playing football in the streets but Murun was lucky to have a mentor guide him along the way - his coach Chultem Sharkhuu. "He was like my father," Altankhuyag said. "He taught me a lot of things about football as well as life."
Though he was not an early starter, Murun set a lofty goal to become one of the best players in his country. Altankhuyag explained how he modeled his play after Brazil star Ronaldinho in order to focus his training: "He is my favourite player. I used to learn from him as I watched him play. I like his playing style, moves and techniques," he said.
I have been looking to become a professional footballer for many years. And finally I have made it.
Murun development was strong enough to earn his first cap for Mongolia in 2007. As a teenager, he started in a 4-1 home defeat to Korea DPR in a 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifier. He continued to progress after he moved to Missouri the following year during spells with Hannibal-LaGrange University and the aforementioned Central Methodist University.
"I had to work and study in USA, so to be honest it was difficult to concentrate on football. Often I only had time to train after a full day of working and studying so I was very tired. But through tough training, I became physically stronger and faster. I also improved mentally and became hungrier to win," he smiled.
Altankhuyag’s move raised many eyebrows, even in his adopted land. The last time Mongolian footballers made a showing in Thailand dates back to the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, where they conceded 26 unanswered goals over two matches, including suffering a record 15-0 loss to Uzbekistan. With Murun's arrival, though, the locals are expecting the Mongolian international to make an immediate impact for Krabi FC, who finished ninth in Thailand's second-tier league last season.
"Murun is a very good player, which is why we signed a professional contract with him," remarked Krabi FC President, Somkiat Kittidhrakul. "This is also the start of a good relationship between Krabi and Mongolia. I want many Mongolian people to support Krabi FC and Mongolian companies to sponsor our club."
Altankhuyag’s transfer to Krabi FC marks another monumental step on the youngster’s path to become as good as compatriot Lumbengarav Donorov. "He is the greatest player in our country," Altankhuyag said. "It is every player's dream to be well-known and I want to be a big star like him."