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Mongolia’s Slumbering Football Revolution

By Julian Green

“When I started out, I was scared and nervous. Now, I’m a team leader.”
Making his debut at 16 years of age, Khoromkhom’s Turbat Daginaa is a seasoned professional when it comes to Mongolian football. At just 23 years of age, Turbat has already won multiple accolades, including Khoromkhom’s league triumph last season and representation on an international level.
However, football in Mongolia lurks in the shadows of the national spotlight. In contrast, volleyball and basketball have struck a chord with the nation. Even in the far reaches of the Gobi desert, makeshift volleyball nets and basketball hoops are a common sight but football remains absent.
“When I was in high school, there was no football…not even a ball,” Turbat recalls.
Football’s muted presence in Mongolia largely comes down to stiff competition.
“Every TV channel shows Naadam but football only has one channel,” Turbat tells me.
The traditional sports maintain a dominant popularity in Mongolia, culminating in the universal media coverage each year.
Whilst thousands flock to the national stadium to celebrate Ulaanbaatar’s Naadam, Turbat smirks as he informs me of the Mongolian league’s average attendance. “One or two hundred.”
It is clear that Mongolian football is yet to appeal to the masses.
The elements also seem to be against football in Mongolia – literally. The long winter months and freezing temperatures constrict the national league to just three months in the summer. With such a short season, players’ pay checks are far from substantial, leaving football in Mongolia at the semi-professional basis.
“We’re all playing for our hobby,” Turbat says, describing the lack of financial incentive as a hindrance on the progression of Mongolian football.
Futsal is played during the winter months to maintain players’ fitness – an indoor variation of football, sheltered from the -20 degree C temperatures outside.
However, the lack of futsal facilities in the country means that football participation is limited to the summer months where it must compete with the overwhelming popularity of the Naadam sports. It is a viscous cycle that currently shuns football from the mainstream.
In comparison, basketball has been embraced far better, most notably by businesses. Turbat tells me how his basketball player friends have experienced a great deal of leniency from their bosses when taking leave from work in order to train; the same cannot be said for footballers.
“Basketballers are payed every month and can concentrate [better] on training,” Turbat says to me, further highlighting the disparities between the two sports.
Daginaa is no stranger to overseas opportunities. After an unsuccessful trial in Singapore, he participated at last summer’s Tiger Street Football Competition, competing against former star players including Deco, Nuno Gomes, Paulo Ferreira, Maniche and Victor Baia.
Deco himself chose Turbat as the most valuable player from the Mongolian leg of the competition.
Consequently it seems unjust to see Turbat still ply his trade semi-professionally in Mongolia.
“I believe we need to build an agency company,” Turbat states, citing the role of agents in furthering a player’s career.
Murun Altankhuyag is currently the sole professional Mongolian footballer and the only Mongolian player to be represented by an agent. If he had an agent, Turbat believes that he would have received more offers to play overseas, and having been handpicked by Deco at last year’s competition, it’s difficult to disagree with him.
Greater player representation is imperative for Mongolian football development but the limited pay makes agents financially out of reach for most players. This highlights the need for the Mongolian Football Federation (MFF) to restructure the country’s football to ensure that Murun Altankhuyag is not an isolated case.
“We need more exhibition games…maybe once a month,” notes Turbat.
The resulting training frequency and international match experience would help accelerate Mongolian football development, according to Turbat, but requires better management from the MFF.
He also believes that Guam’s approach to football should be emulated in order to sustain progress. Formerly considered an easy fixture for Mongolia, the roles have since reversed for the two countries. Aspiring to be like such a small footballing nation may seem trivial but a change in approach is necessary, particularly now that Mongolia ranks 205th in the world – their lowest ever FIFA ranking.
China’s President Xi Jinping has stated that seeing China qualify, host and win the World Cup are his three footballing wishes. These bold objectives are plausible for a nation 1.3 billion-strong; Mongolia’s footballing future remains at the feet of just three million.
Despite the odds, Turbat showed optimism when talking about Mongolia’s next generation, mentioning football’s growing popularity amongst youngsters, the abundance of youth teams and the country’s international success at youth level. Whether they can carry this to the senior level remains a question for the future but it will require much needed investment and reform from the MFF.
Despite the hardship football faces, I am confident that Murun Altankhuyag was just the tip of the iceberg for Mongolia. A new wave of professional footballers is waiting to be discovered in the next generation but requires the right coaching from the MFF.
When quizzed on future aspirations, Turbat quickly replied, “Management.”
Given the current state of Mongolian football and the potential it possesses, rather than cup glory as a player, Turbat Daginaa’s greatest career success may come in the form of nurturing Mongolia’s future generation as a coach.

Short URL: http://ubpost.mongolnews.mn/?p=15660

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