The odd detractor (they're always odd) occasionally accuses WSC of devoting too much space to articles about obscure countries such as Outer Mongolia. This one's for them. Charles Philpott takes up the story

No account of Mongolia would be complete without a reference to Ghengis Khan. There, it’s out of the way now. For, when talking Mongolian football, there will be no story of Mongol hordes emerging out of the East to take the football world by storm, no parallels to the exploits of the Great Khan.

In May, Mongolia saw the birth of its first-ever domestic football league. This follows fifteen years of annual national championships and, more immediately, from the Mongolian Football Federation (MFF) joining the Asian Football Confederation in 1995. There is even talk of a FIFA application in the not too distant future. Then again, one should not expect any hasty actions from a nation that has waited seven centuries to reassert itself upon the world stage.

The league, however, is a product of the radical changes that have transformed Mongolia since the demise of Soviet hegemony six years ago. Its six clubs epitomize the values of the new Mongolia. Argamag (Mustang), Khangard (a mythical bird), and Tasyn Suudal (Condor’s Nest) evidence the resurgence of Mongolians’ traditional mythology while Business Devils and UFJ (named by its Malaysian backer) bear the flag of the market system.

Khangard also reflect a legacy of Mongolia’s recent, communist past in being sponsored by the Russian-Mongolian ore-dressing plant, Erdenet, which accounts for two-thirds of the country‘s exports. The first league champions, Erchim (Power) from the capital, Ulanbaatar (UB), are sponsored by Central Power Station No 4; infamous for the hundreds of explosions, large and small, that rock it every year. Two of the others are funded by banks; the only other organizations with money to spare for such undertakings.

The MFF itself was not so fortunate. Seeking commercial sponsorship of just £6,000, on terms that would have made the sell-off of British football look restrained, they came up empty. State monopolies and financial institutions aside, there is not a lot of spare advertising cash and cricket, bizarrely, robbed them of what little was on offer – foreign companies opting for an expatriate cricket tournament (with its novelty value guaranteeing international media coverage) rather than a sport which is actually played and watched by Mongolians.

Money, or lack thereof, is one of many obstacles the MFF faces. The vast distances involved have discouraged a number of clubs from joining the league, though there is hope that more may sign up in subsequent seasons. Four of the current six clubs are from UB, the other two from relatively close towns, Erdenet and Darkhan. Mind you, close in the Mongolian context means a train journey lasting some 12 hours. In spite of the distance, football ‘specials’ still run, as the entire league, teams and officials, goes on the road to Darkhan and Erdenet twice a season.

For a while, however, the MFF was not certain of having a venue in the capital. Much controversy was generated by the decision, in 1995, to allow the national team to use UB’s main stadium, which is also home to the three-day wrestling tournament that marks the national holiday, Naadam, in July.

Some, however, objected to the use of the stadium because they regard it as sacred ground. Sacred to wrestling that is. The protests could have stemmed from more pragmatic considerations, such as the effect that four matches a week would have on the pitch because the turf in the stadium is in appalling condition, littered with scraps of metal and dotted with holes. This does not pose a problem to Mongolian wrestlers, not noted for their pace, but makes it less than ideal for a sport involving movement.

Formal matches had been staged in UB from the 1930s, but the Mongolian Football Federation wasn’t formed until 1959. Popular legend maintained that Hungarians were involved in some way. Not implausible, given the regard in which Hungarian football was held at the time. Perhaps more importantly, the late ’50s, in the wake of the Hungarian Uprising, was a time when the Soviets might have been happy to dispatch some uppity Magyars out of harm’s way to Outer Mongolia. (Officials, of course, deny all of this.)

Friendly matches were subsequently held, mainly with opposition drawn from the Soviet Union. The real spur to the game, however, came from their links with their Asian neighbours; not least because the Soviets, for all their footballing skill, had little interest in fostering effective competition in their satellite.

Mongolia was one of the top national sides in Asia when they competed in a four-nation tournament in 1960 – admittedly there were only about four independent nations in Asia at the time. Their place amongst the elite secure, it was not until 1993 that Mongolia again fielded a side against Asian competition, pipping Macau to finish fifth in a six-nation tournament. More recently, the national squad narrowly lost to, er, local Turkish students.

Encouraged, the MFF looks ahead to the Asian Games in 1997. In addition to furnishing the odd drubbing, the Asian footballing community has generously kicked in with material and technical support. The Malaysians organized seminars for Mongolian referees. The South Koreans donated balls and nets for the nascent league, not to mention one of their own citizens, Oh Suk Jae, a former international, to serve as coach for the Mongolian national team.

Oh Suk Jae, after surveying the cream of Mongolian talent, made the damning comment that “at least they are enthusiastic”, adding “but they are not footballers”. To be sure, there are a few players with a modicum of skill and the overall level of play improved as the season progressed. There were noticeably fewer aimless runs and even the odd string of half-decent passes, obstacles notwithstanding, by August; though the Mongolian custom of shaking hands whenever inadvertent physical contact occurs detracts somewhat from the flow of the game.

Nonetheless, star prospects for the future are not great. The ger (tent) shantytowns that surround UB are breeding grounds for pool sharks and the MBA (Mongolian Basketball Association), as well as cholera, but not for youth honing their craft on bundles of rags and old cans.

Attendance figures at matches have not been overwhelming. No floodlights means kick-off must be during business hours. Tickets in excess of 200 tugriks (20p) discourage poorer supporters and strict laws prohibiting fans from adorning the national flag with the clubs’ names hinder the creation of terrace culture. If the MFF was to introduce special concessions – eg, horses being admitted for half-price – they would undoubtedly be packing them in to what would then be the world’s cheapest all-seater/saddle stadium. Gates are rising, though, and the national sport paper, Tavan Tsagng (‘Five Rings’), is quickly snapped up whenever it runs football features, so there may be cause for optimism about development of the game. After all, Mongols have a great tradition of lightning offences buoyed by massed, travelling support. When they emerge out of the East this time, though, the world will have had lots, and lots, of warning.

From WSC 119 January 1997. What was happening this month

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