Dushanbe: When the Asian Qualifiers for the FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022 and AFC Asian Cup China 2023 campaign began in June 2019, Mongolia had the honour of hosting the very first qualifying game globally. The Blue Wolves duly registered the first qualifying victory by winning 2-0 against Brunei Darussalam, before a 2-1 away defeat allowed them to progress 3-2 on aggregate.
Now 21 months on, the East Asians are again the first to act as the continent's qualifying resumes this week. The team, under new boss Rastislav Bozik, take on hosts Tajikistan on Thursday before facing Group F leaders Japan five days later.
Having seen the qualifying fixtures postponed for a year due to COVID-19, the team are hungry to embrace the return to action according to Bozik.
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"It was really a hard period for the whole world," the 43-year-old Slovak manager told FIFA.com. "A short league format, a long winter and all sorts of hardships caused [by the pandemic] made our preparation very difficult. But we have dealt with it and put the worst behind us. Now our squad is full of energy and we will work hard and have our players in their normal shape."
Bozik has spent much of his 18-year coaching career in Asia at clubs like Son Dong Tam Long An and Al Wahda, as well as working as an assistant coach with Malaysia. He was appointed head coach of Mongolia last September with the job being his senior national team role.
"It is an honour to coach a national team, especially for me with Mongolia," he added. "My last job was the head of Youth and Coach Education by MFF (Mongolian Football Federation). Now my tasks are to make selection decisions and prepare suitable strategy for the senior national team. I am thankful for the faith shown in me."
Winning hearts and minds
Having never progressed beyond the first round in Asia's World Cup qualifying before, Mongolia made history on the road to Qatar 2022 with the victory over Brunei Darussalam sending them through to the second round for the first time.
"The milestone victory sent a strong signal which the country needed. The team won the hearts of the people and conversely the fans' support motivated the players," Bozik added reflecting on their first-round campaign.
In the process, 32-year-old captain Tsedenbal Norjmoo (pictured above) struck twice, while 29-year-old forward Nyam-Osor Naranbold was also on target as they edged Brunei Darussalam. They history-making campaign continued in their maiden second-round match with a 1-0 home win over Myanmar, and this time it was 20-year-old Dolgoon Amaraa who netted the winner.
"These three players will continue to play key roles in this squad," added the coach. "Actually they represent three generations of the team. So we have the veteran players who help with their experiences while the youngsters can provide fresh impetus."
Discipline and spirit
Languishing at the bottom of their group with just a lone win from their five outings, Mongolia are desperate to conjure another victory. They lost to third-placed Tajikistan 1-0 in September 2019, before conceding six unanswered goals to runaway leaders Japan a month later.
"Needless to say, the matches are big challenges for us. We play away against strong rivals. We will focus on our performances rather than results. And good results will come as long as we work well in details like individual play, formation and teamwork. This is our philosophy."
"Mongolian players are quick in learning if they get motivated. They are a disciplined team and they play with a high spirit. In short, they can defy odds and achieve positive transition."
Sources: FIFA.com, Mongolian Football Federation
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