Norjmoo Tsedenbal scored the first goal worldwide in Qatar 2022 qualifying
He captained Mongolia to maiden progression into the second round
The set-piece specialist is on the verge of a national milestone
Had it not been for his football passion, Norjmoo Tsedenbal would probably have made a name for himself in anohter sport. As a young boy, indeed, Tsedenbal excelled in wrestling, archery and horse racing – all of which are Mongolia's traditional sports.
"Every Mongolian loves these sports," the 31-year-old Mongolia captain told FIFA.com. "The Mongolian kids grow up by wrestling with each other and I was one of them."
In fact, Tsedenbal was among the best in these sports, winning titles in both wrestling and horse racing at school. With football beginning to thrive in Mongolia, with the nation joining both FIFA and the AFC in 1998, Tsedenbal quickly became fond of the game.
The progress he made was evident. Having impressed with his high-school team, Tsedenbal earned his first national-team cap in the East Asia Football Federation (EAFF) Cup Preliminary Competition in 2009. And he has never looked back, racking up 30 international appearances and scoring seven goals.
Now Tsedenbal has established himself among the country's footballing icons – he is just a goal shy of Mongolia's all-time international scoring record by veteran Lumbengarav Donorov. And all the more impressive is that three of his goals were scored in Mongolia's history-making FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ qualifying campaign.
Tsedenbal entered qualifying as the new Mongolia captain after then-coach Michael Weiss handed him the armband on the last day of a pre-tournament training camp in Thailand. And he duly repaid the German's faith, scoring two crucial goals in their aggregate 3-2 victory over Brunei Darussalam as Mongolia made history by progressing to the second round for the first time.
Tsedenbal's first goal was a sublimely-taken free-kick, which set his side on the path to a 2-0 first-leg home win. With Mongolia having the honour of opening the global race for Qatar 2022, Tsedenbal became the first marksman worldwide in the Qatar 2022 preliminaries.
In the return leg in Brunei, Tsedenbal and Co had a hard time being two goals behind at half-time. Shortly after the restart, they earned a penalty and with so much at stake, Tsedenbal stepped up to the spot to score the goal which sealed their passage.
"It was indeed a great feeling when our national team progressed beyond the first round of World Cup qualifying for the first time," he said. "I think that [maiden progression] will make a big impact on the development of Mongolian football.
"To be honest, these victories brought Mongolian football into a totally different level. Mongolian kids usually watch the English Premier League or Spanish La Liga, but from that day they have followed our game, cheering for us. The number of football fans is increasing fast."
Aside from fulfilling his skipper's duties, Tsedenbal went on to showcase his abilities as a set-piece specialist in the ensuing second round, scoring his third goal of the campaign by converting a spot-kick in a 2-1 loss to Tajikistan, which made him the team's top scorer, despite playing as a defender.
"I had responsibility to take the set-pieces," said Tsedenbal, whose admits his football idol is David Beckham. "To take a set-piece successfully, you need to put your emotions under control. There is always pressure but I have put a lot of effort into practising this in training in order to cope."
Tsedenbal's achievements at club level are also impressive. He began his career with Ulaanbaataryn Unaganuud, winning the Mongolian Premier League title in 2009 as captain. After moving to Ulaanbaatar City, he went on to clinch the MFF Cup and Super Cup with the capital-based side, also as the skipper. Now plying his trade with 12-time national champions Khaan Khuns-Erchim, Tsedenbal has quickly fixed his sights on fresh goals.
"I will turn 32 years old [this September]," he said. "I want to help my side to the league title so we can represent our country in next year's AFC Cup."
With three games left in Mongolia’s World Cup qualifying, of course, he is hopeful of achieving new a breakthrough at international level. With the campaign doubling as qualifying for the AFC Asian Cup 2023, Tsedenbal is eyeing a place in the next round from a group which also features Japan, Myanmar and Kyrgyz Republic.
"We are the bottom side with just three points, but I hope we can get more positive results so we can finish in fourth place [to advance to Asian Cup qualifying third round]."
"Big progress has been made in Mongolia football recently. When we were young, we could only play football on grounds of dirt, but today we have pitches of artificial turf. The Mongolia Football Federation has been doing a good job in promoting the game and today the game is becoming more popular. A promising, new generation is emerging and I believe one day football will reach the same status as the traditional Mongolian sports."