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Pyongyang: The opening 2017 AFC Cup match of Group I will be a historic moment for hosts 4.25 SC as the DPR Korea club will make their debut in the continental competition. However, for visitors Erchim FC of Mongolia, it will not only also be their inaugural AFC Cup tie but an important step for a nation that has spent years in the footballing wilderness.

In this exclusive profile the-AFC.com delves into the current state of football in the land-locked nation and how the Mongolian Football Federation plans to improve standards with a focus on youth development and nationwide exposure.

On The Up

Sandwiched between the global powerhouses of China and Russia, Mongolia is the world’s 19th largest yet most sparsely populated independent nation. Around half of the 2.8 million population live in the capital, Ulaanbaatar.

The national sport, wrestling, is one of the traditional ‘Three Manly Skills’ of Mongolia – the other two being archery and horsemanship – and is where the country has excelled in a sporting sense. Nine of its 26 Olympic medals have come in wrestling since first competing at the Games in 1964. The remainder have been in judo, boxing and shooting.

While football has enjoyed a certain level of popularity over the years, it has remained some way from the forefront of Mongolia’s sporting culture.

Long, bitterly cold winters in which temperatures can drop to as low as -40oC, not to mention its vastness and lack of infrastructure such as proper roads connecting the country, provide huge obstacles for the beautiful game’s development.

But ambition within the Mongolian Football Federation (MFF) is the highest it’s ever been with President Ganbaatar Amgalanbaatar, who took over at the helm in late 2014, aiming to break boundaries on a number of fronts.

“I expect a positive and brighter future,” said Ganbaatar. “Since I have been MFF president my priorities have been grassroots, women’s football, the national team and the improvement of sporting infrastructure.

“Hence, I have initiated many activities and programmes within this time.”

Among the key alterations during Ganbaatar’s time has been the launch of a three-tier league system. Previously just a single division, Mongolia’s footballing pyramid now features promotion and relegation for the first time and there are obvious benefits.

National team captain Turbat Daginaa, a 24-year-old defender who plays for Ulaanbaatar-based Khoromkhon, has witnessed the changes first-hand.

“We started the new league two years ago and have just finished the second year,” said Turbat, who skippered Mongolia at the AFC Solidarity Cup in Kuching, Malaysia, in November.

“Things have improved a lot because there are more games and it is much more competitive. Before only a few clubs dominated but now it’s anybody’s game as even the small teams can beat the big teams so it’s getting better and better and will keep doing so in the coming years.”

When Turbat was young football was not part of the sporting curriculum so he honed his skills first on the streets of the capital and later at a local club.

But these days children have the opportunity to take up the game during school hours with increased emphasis being placed on the world’s most popular sport.

“Every year the facilities are improving and now even schools are implementing football programmes,” added Turbat. “We want to bring more attraction to our national league so one day our players might have the chance to play abroad.”

While nine of the 10 teams in the two-year-old Khurkhree National Premier League are from Ulaanbaatar, there is a big drive underway to take football to all corners of the country.

Traditionally popular towards the Russian border in the north, where pre-1990 Soviet influence meant the game was practiced more regularly than elsewhere, exposure across the entire country is another of Ganbaatar’s priorities.

“Until 2014 all competitions and activities were in centralised areas or venues,” explained the MFF president.

“But I have established regional associations in the 21 provinces in order to develop football in a balanced way. It would be unfair if it could not develop nationwide.”

Last year a tournament involving each province was staged outside Ulaanbaatar, in the eastern province of Dornod, for the first time. This provided a much-needed opportunity for the talent away from the capital to showcase their skills and gain recognition from those within the industry.

Youth development and women’s football have also been at the forefront of the MFF’s strategy to make positive strides.

Earlier in 2016, two of the country’s most promising teenagers – Ganbold Ganbayar and Soyol-Erdene Gal-Erdene – travelled to England to train with League Two side Barnet FC and gained valuable experience in a different footballing culture. Ganbayar, who is just 16 years old, is currently spending a year with the youth academy at Puskas Akademia FC in Hungary.

Furthermore, national U-13, U-15 and U-17 boys’ and girls’ championships have been held over the past couple years, while Mongolia’s first ever women’s league kicked off in 2015.

In a region considered one of the footballing powerhouses of women’s football – with DPR Korea claiming the 2016 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and Japan winning the 2015 AFC U-19 Women’s Championship a year earlier – Ganbaatar hopes the country’s female talent can, if not yet challenge, at least join the elite in years to come.

“Women’s football is a key priority that we have put a lot of emphasis on,” says Ganbaatar. “The U-15 and U-18 girls’ national teams have been established by Japanese head coaches, and we want both teams to qualify for the AFC U-16 and U-19 championships in 2019.”

Crucial to progress in youth development will be the nationwide introduction of FIFA’s Grassroots initiative. Its aims include: increasing participation among six-to-12-year-old boys and girls; improving the standards of coach-educators and the number of training courses; and preparing a detailed plan for development at local, regional and national levels.

Around half of the country’s 21 provinces are currently involved in the scheme and the hope is to have all 21 of them initiated by 2018. As Ganbaatar notes: “This is the future of our football; I believe that the young generation will prosper in the near future.”

One man who knows the Mongolian game inside out is the national team’s assistant coach Tulga Zorigt, a winger for his country between 2007 and 2013 who has been part of the coaching set-up since hanging up his boots.

Speaking during the AFC Solidarity Cup, Zorigt echoed Ganbaatar’s views that focus on youth is essential, while he also discussed the challenges faced both at national and international level.

“Of course, I think everyone agrees that the weather is the biggest obstacle,” Zorigt acknowledged.

“From November until March it’s impossible to play outside and there’s a lack of indoor facilities. Instead the players change to futsal in the winter and then when they go back outside they are at a disadvantage because they must adjust their game to the bigger pitches again.”

Another challenge for the MFF is lack of international fixtures. A 5-1 aggregate defeat to Timor-Leste in the first round of the 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign in March 2015 meant Mongolia was one of the few Asian teams who would take no part in the ensuing second-round group stage. A void was left in the national team’s calendar.

The Blue Wolves also failed to advance past the first qualifying round of the EAFF East Asian Cup in July, leaving the AFC Solidarity Cup – a tournament arranged for teams with no further part to play in World Cup qualifiers – as the only competitive matches on offer for the foreseeable future.

“Lack of games is a problem,” admitted Tulga. “No one will come to Mongolia in December and for us to fly to other countries is very expensive so it’s hard to arrange official matches.

“That’s why competitions such as the Solidarity Cup are so important for our football development and give the younger players the chance to learn and gain international experience.”

FC Ulaanbaatar’s Bayarjargal Oyunbat, who was named Mongolia’s Player of the Year in 2015, agreed.

The 27-year-old midfielder scored four goals – all of them penalties – in three EAFF East Asian Cup qualifying games and was again happy to be donning the national jersey in Malaysia.

“There was a lot of hype leading up to the Solidarity Cup and expectation was really high,” said Bayarjargal during the tournament.

“All the teams are a similar standard and it gives our players the chance to step up. I want as many games as possible because after the Timor-Leste match there have been almost none; it’s a long time to wait. The most important thing is to give everything for the national team to try and achieve a win.”

Under the charge of ex-Chinese Taipei coach Toshiaki Imai – brought in on a short-term basis to expose the players to “more professional football ethics, culture and lifestyle,” according to Tulga – Mongolia suffered a narrow 2-1 reversal to Macau in their Solidarity Cup opener.

The Blue Wolves then went on to record a 2-0 victory over Sri Lanka, but a 3-0 defeat to Laos saw them eliminated at the first stage.

Despite the early exit, and the Japanese coach’s expected departure, the future outlook remains a positive one with the target being long-term development.

“The most important thing now is to focus on youth,” added Tulga. “The squad for the Solidarity Cup was the youngest we have ever put together. The average age was just 22 and the plan is for a continuous programme with regular national team meet-ups.”

With such emphasis placed on the next generation of footballers, it is equally important to improve the opportunities on offer to aspiring coaches.

This has been yet another priority for Ganbaatar and the MFF over the past 12 months and plans are in motion for the likes of Tulga to work towards their AFC ‘A’ or UEFA ‘A’ licences.

Many already boast the ‘B’ equivalents, but within the next year some will have the opportunity to travel abroad to acquire the necessary qualifications to enhance their careers and, in turn, offer invaluable expertise to those in their homeland.

Zuunmod, a small town around 45 minutes south of Ulaanbaatar, has already benefitted. With the help of the AFC, a number of training pitches have been built and, after interviewing prospective coaches, a footballing programme was launched. If such initiatives are replicated nationwide then future prospects could well be bright.

“After the Soviet Union collapsed we became democratic and it was a hard time as even food rations were low,” recalled Tulga. “Football almost disappeared as there were no resources to focus on it.

“The parents and grandparents of these kids had nothing to do with the game. But with this focus on youth, I have no doubt that things will change for the better very soon.”

Photos: Lagardère Sports