Football thriving in the country of eternal blue sky

7 May 2020
  • Football in Mongolia has been making strides

  • National team made history during Qatar 2022 qualifying

  • Capital Ulaanbaatar deals with some of the harshest weather in the world

On Mongolia's vast plateau, Naadam has long been the most popular sporting event. Held each July in the National Stadium, Ulaanbaatar, the competition features wrestling, archery and horse racing – all of which embody the nation's nomadic traditions.

With Naadam remaining the most celebrated festival across the country, however, an emerging sport has made its presence strongly felt in recent years: football. Games by the national teams and clubs have occupied the headlines throughout the season and matches have been played even in Naadam.

The nation's passion for football reached fever pitch thanks to Mongolia's impressive showings in last year's Asian preliminaries for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™. The Blue Wolves, under German coach Michael Weiss, swept past Brunei 3-2 over two legs to progress to the next stage for the first time, with Norjmoogiin Tsedenbal scoring in both legs. Mongolia also had the honour of hosting the first global qualifying game on the road to Qatar 2022.

Football has a relatively short history in Mongolia, with the first national team established in 1956. Three years later, the Mongolia Football Federation (MFF) was formed, but for decades the country remained inactive on the international scene.

Things began to change in 1998, when the MFF became affiliated to FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation (AFC). With support from global football's governing body, through FIFA Forward and other projects, football infrastructure has been improved with new training centres and pitches built. Development programmes, both of the national teams and at grassroots levels, have been implemented while a ten-team semi-pro league was launched in 2016.

Consistent progress has been made since their first World Cup qualifying attempt for Korea/Japan 2002. They registered their first three points with a 1-0 defeat of Myanmar on the road to Brazil 2014, despite losing 2-0 in the return and narrowly crashing out. And after the history-making progression to the second round in qualifying for Qatar 2022, they opened brightly with another solitary-goal victory over Myanmar.

A bird's view the MFF Football Centre, Ulaanbaatar during a snowy winter day

Major goals set in MFF Vision:

• Maximise core development (grassroots, youth, women, futsal, national teams) • Enhance sustainable growth • Capacity building (Human resources development of MFF, coach courses, referee academy) • Improve infrastructure (facilities and equipment, artificial pitches, mini pitches) • Fundamental development (clubs, competitions, leagues, regional FAs) • Public awareness and engagement (Marketing, sponsorship, media partnership etc) • Management and legacy (legal environment, transparency, auditing, partnership with stakeholders) • Social engagement and responsibility

Harsh weather conditions

Mongolia may be known as ‘The Land of the Eternal Blue Sky’ due to having 250 sunny days each year, but it has notoriously frigid winters, with Ulaanbaatar holding the record as the world's coldest capital city. While the daunting weather conditions pose difficulties for the 11-a-side game, it presents locals with a rare opportunity to develop their indoor game - futsal.

"The cold weather usually lasts five-to-six months and we have to be adaptable to develop the game," a MFF official told "We go for the five-a-side game. There is no way to play outside when temperatures reach as low as 40 degrees centigrade, so training and playing the indoor game can help us achieve success in futsal."

Still, there are times when the locals warm themselves by sipping tea and drinking kumis in Mongolian yurts, with players competing in snowy conditions. Such 'white matches' caught plenty of attention during the 2018 AFC U-19 Championship qualifying campaign. The entire group campaign was staged in Ulaanbaatar in early November 2017, when an unexpected blizzard saw the capital covered with snow.

"The pitch was snow white and it was difficult to identify the ball," continued the official. "Our solution to this was to mark the ball with black paint so it looked apparent on the white backdrop."

This article is part of ‘The Global Game’ series which focuses on football away from the spotlight. Next week we look at football in Vatican City.