Lying between the giants of Russia and China in the East of Asia, Mongolia is a fascinating country that is more famous for its traditions and history than its football. The game is still in its relative infancy when compared to other Asian nations which is reflected in their current FIFA ranking.
Despite being the 19th largest land mass on the planet, the population is small with an estimated half the population leading a traditional, nomadic lifestyle. And with other sports such as wrestling, archery and horse-racing still dominating the sporting landscape, resources and talent are somewhat lacking in football.
Currently the Mongolian national team are ranked 202nd out of 205 in the FIFA rankings and have already seen their FIFA World Cup qualifying campaign ended by Timor-Leste after a 5-1 aggregate defeat. Timor-Leste are by no means a powerhouse in Asian football being just 17 places higher in the rankings, but the difference in quality was apparent with the Timorese victorious both home and away.
However, one project in the picturesque capital city of Ulaanbaatar, where most of the country’s football teams are based is trying to develop the game in the country by putting their club, Bayangol FC on the footballing map.
Bayangol FC was founded in 2013 as a club for the regular people of Mongolia – one which is run in the right way – they have an ethical and charitable ethos which is already helping people who wouldn’t otherwise have a chance better themselves – and all through football.
The challenges the club are facing are significant considering the lack of infrastructure, demographics and climatic conditions of the East Asian Steppes – remember this is a country where many of its inhabitants still lead a traditional nomadic lifestyle that has been practised for centuries.
This type of living means that families move their homes called Ger several times a year and deal with temperatures of around 30°C in summer and a huge swing to a severe -40°C in winter. Life in the country flourishes in summer but winter is about survival – football in the country mirrors the climate with teams reverting to futsal from October to April.
The Directors of the club are passionate and have a refreshing approach to implementing their ideas in the Mongolian game – it is just a matter of how and when they implement them. We were lucky enough to have an enjoyable, casual chat with one of them, Jimmy Kroeger who managed to spare an hour of his (very early) Sunday morning to discuss the project in more detail.
I began by asking how the club was formed three years ago.
Bayangol FC was formed in 2013 when one of the Directors, Enki Batsumber contacted Paul Watson (coach and author of Up Pohnpei) regarding his interest in setting up a club in the capital that was based on honesty and transparency. He was in the middle of setting up a new league format in the country, so an opportunity arose to build something special.
As a club we are very much against discrimination and corruption which is unfortunately part of the modern game. Mongolian football was pretty crooked, like FIFA as a whole with pretty much the entire Mongolian Football Federation (MFF) resigning at one point after a scandal linked to the FIFA Presidential elections.
Some questionable practices may still exist in Mongolian football, but we are basically anti everything that is wrong in football and will hopefully make a difference to local people’s lives in the future.
How did you get involved in the club?
After playing as a youngster and seriously getting into football over ten years ago, I became interested in the English Premier League, more specifically Arsenal and thought I’d like to do more in terms of fan involvement.
I think about three years ago Portsmouth had a crowdfunding campaign which I heard about through Ian Darke, the English commentator who does a lot of broadcasts on the US Mens National Team over in the States where I am based. I got quite involved in that without really meaning to but it opened my mind a bit in the sense that I found that I may be interested in doing something similar again in the future.
Fast-forward a few years and through a podcast that Paul was a guest on, I heard about the Bayangol project and decided to get in touch to see if I could offer my services. Paul, Enki and I spoke at length via email and Skype to gauge whether we had the same mind-set and one thing lead to another.
We all agreed that we had the same vision and ambitions for the club and it would be mutually beneficial that I came on board which resulted in becoming a Director in February of this year. It’s been a huge learning curve but I’m enjoying every moment of being involved in such an interesting project.
You have some foreign players on the books at present, tell us some more about those acquisitions.
We had a few foreigners in the playing squad until the recent break, but the Mongolian Government, to my understanding, has just passed a Law banning certain nationalities in the country due to terrorism fears. That effectively meant that our three Nigerians had to leave Mongolia and our American keeper Austin Rogers, has stayed in the US after suffering a meniscus tear during his recent break home.
Regarding the Nigerians, two were already playing for other Mongolian Premier League teams before their clubs suddenly decided not to pay their salaries and released them after letting their visas expire, effectively making them illegal immigrants. Bayangol FC decided to help these guys who were sleeping rough, so we housed them and brought them into the team.
The third Nigerian, a striker named Olawale Sunday was the victim of player trafficking in Central Asia before we offered him a fresh start after being informed of the situation via Scottish journalist (now our Media Director), David McArdle who is based in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan.
Basically ‘Wale’ was promised the chance of playing with a big Russian club after leaving Nigeria, but found himself turning out for Lokomotiv Dushanbe in Tajikistan. His ‘handler’ was in control of his passport and earnings at all times, so one night he stole his passport before escaping to the Tajik/Kyrgyz boarder.
After arriving in Kyrgyzstan, he made friends with David and played with Alga of the First Division before accepting our offer of a safe place to train and play in Mongolia. ‘Wale’ arrived in Bayangol in around the second week of May to play for us.
What about the local players – how have the club been recruiting?
At the start there were open trials around the country, which were mainly futsal based due to the harsh winter, but this year we didn’t hold any. Actually, the open trials were featured in a Reality TV series in Mongolia, which obviously drummed up a bit of welcome interest in the project.
Our main goal is to have some kind of youth academy as that is something that doesn’t exist in the country at present. Ideally, we’d like to have kids as young as eight training with us, playing to our system which would mean by the time they reach 16, 17, 18 years-old, they’ll already know how we play and can possibly make the transition into the first team squad.
So that is the situation across the board over there? They are no real facilities to develop youngsters right now?
There are no real facilities for anybody besides a few stadiums, which really hinders the growth of the game in the country. Almost the whole league plays at just one stadium – just two clubs play elsewhere. Erchim, who are the defending champions play at their own stadium in Ulaanbaatar and Khangarid FC play in Erdenet which is the third-largest city in Mongolia.
Enki actually works for the MFF and has just been promoted to the Special Projects Manager, so he’s been pushing for a full-scale indoor training facility which would enable players to train in winter. I think it would change the whole landscape of the country if funding was successful.
How is the current season going and please share some information about your new coach Shadab Iftikhar.
Actually we were still expecting to be playing in the Mongolian 1st Division (second tier) up until about 10 days before the first game of the new season. We were unlucky not to be promoted after finishing third and losing the play-off against the eight placed Premier League team by just one away goal.
However, 10 days before the season was due to start we were approached by the MFF after Continental FC had backed out of the competition, presumably for financial reasons. We had a clear choice, accept the invitation to join the Premier League or be disbanded. So, we were basically forced to accept the offer and prepare for our maiden campaign in just ten days.
To make matters worse, our two coaches were forced to leave the club as they were actually playing for another Premier League team and coaching Bayangol FC simultaneously. One of their aims was to try and pick up their coaching badges while working for us. To be honest, their coaching qualifications probably wouldn’t have been enough anyway at the time to make the step up to the Premier League as they need a minimum of the equivalent of a UEFA B license.
We decide to advertise the post, which received lots of applications, but the one from British-Pakistani Shadab Iftikhar stood out by some distance. His credentials for the position were very impressive – he’s just 26 years-old, already has a UEFA A license and has been involved in scouting at both Wigan Athletic and Everton under Roberto Martínez and was successful in a relegation escape with non-league Hesketh Bank AFC when in charge of the club.
After several meetings over Skype and lots of number crunching between the Directors, Shadab accepted our offer and within two weeks of the first point of contact, he was in Ulaanbaatar taking control of the team.
We are now six games into our season without a win, but we have been very unlucky. Shadab’s tactics and style of play are starting to take shape but we feel the club has more than enough to stay up this year. We think that with just one or two extra players, we’d be closer to getting better and more consistent results.
Incidentally, Shadab has also just been named as assistant for the Mongolian national team. In his first game with the team, they beat the Northern Mariana Islands 8-0 away from home.
We are currently on an international break plus which also incorporates the traditional Naadam festival which means that everything in the country comes to a stop. Naadam is actually a traditional and very important sporting festival which is a kind of a Mongolian Olympic Games that consist of Mongolian wrestling, horse racing, and archery.
Our next game takes place on 24th July against Ulaanbaatar City who are currently seventh in the league, two places above us.
We’re happy with the way things are going and excited about the next few years with Shadab as the head coach. He is enthusiastic and ambitious and has said he sees this as a five, six or seven year project and wants to leave the club in a strong position whenever he does decide to move on.
What are the club doing in terms of partnerships at the moment?
We approached Erchim a while back and they have become a sort of sister-club for us as we use their facilities for training.
Paul and Enki also organised a link-up with Barnet FC in London when they arranged a trial for two players who are considered some of the best talent in the country. They are not Bayangol FC players, but as I said, our vision is to develop the Mongolian game in general so it was only positive. A Mongolian coach from Erchim also went over for the month trial to shadow the British coaches.
One of the players, a young kid from a border town near Russia called Ganbaa, scored three goals in two games including two against Jose Mourinho’s son who kept goal for Fulham. The trials were very promising but as we know, work permit regulations in the UK are some of the strictest around so nothing came of it in the end.
We’ve also had talks with Limerick FC in Ireland but at present, one of the things we are trying to focus on is setting up links with local schools in and around Ulaanbaatar. As I mentioned, developing youngsters is key to our vision so hopefully we can provide opportunities for local children that can one day join our first team.
Finally, how is Bayangol FC run financially and how can people help out if they feel they have something to offer?
We are a very approachable and transparent club so if anyone has any ideas or would like to offer their help, please get in touch. You can find our email addresses on the site – we are always available to listen to new ideas and suggestions. Some of those relationships we develop will hopefully build into something bigger in the future.
In terms of finance, we are currently sponsored by Study UK, which is obviously based out of the UK. Recently we had around nine students from Universities such as Cambridge and Oxford come over to run some camps with local children – they of course played football, but more importantly travelled the country and taught the children English during their stay, which was a great experience for the youngsters.
We also rely on monetary donations through our own site and we currently have a crowdfunding page up on Tifosy. Our goal is to raise £3,000 to help us with the running costs that will see us through to the end of the season. There are different levels of contributions, whereby contributors can receive club scarves or shirts and even sponsor a player, etc. The campaign started on 27th June and will run until at least 8th August, 2016, so please check it out should you have an interest in the club and what we’re doing.