Friday, June 27, 2014

Mongolia’s flourishing football fan base

Why ‘World Cup Fever’ may not end at the final whistle

By James Watkins

It is impossible to have missed the fervor surrounding the FIFA World Cup in Mongolia, however this is not simply a one-off frenzy. From the numbers of young people sporting Manchester United jerseys around Ulaanbaatar, to the growing memberships of Mongolian fan clubs of Bayern Munich or Chelsea, it is clear that football is a growing cultural influence on the lives of many Mongolians.

Football leagues from across the world, but predominantly European leagues such as Spain’s La Liga, England’s Premier League, and Germany’s Bundesliga, have a substantial and rapidly growing Mongolian fan base. Over 7,400 people like the Mongolian Chelsea FC Fans page on Facebook, which claims to be the country’s largest fan club, while nearly 4,000 Mongolians like a page for Manchester United supporters, and Real Madrid FC Mongolia boasts over 5,000 fans.

The extent of these fans’ allegiance is substantial: for them, 3 a.m. trips to the pub to watch a game is not just a novelty experience every four years, but a way of life. T.Zorigtsaikhan, a member of the Mongolian fan club for Italian side AC Milan, describes how dozens of fellow fans meet “mostly every weekend” to watch live games during the club season. “Most of the games are [at] 3:45 in the morning, and most of them are on Sunday, so in the morning you are screwed!”

Zorigtsaikhan talks with pride about the AC Milan football jerseys that he owns, and praises the history and the culture of sporting loyalty of his adopted club. His dedication is not unique; more than 50 Mongolian football fans travelled to China in 2011 with the local AC Milan and Inter Milan fan clubs when the two teams played for the Super Cup in Beijing. For many Mongolians, it seems, “football fever” is not a temporary malaise during the World Cup, but a life-long affliction. The story of how Mongolians came to acquire such strong passions for a particular football club several thousand kilometers away is unique and touching. In many cases, children were bought a team jersey by their parents when Chinese-made football shirts flooded the clothing market in the early 2000s. As soon as they were old enough to read the name Beckham, Ronaldo, or Kaká on their back, their allegiances were set.

According to Zorigtsaikhan, Mongolian football fever started during the 2002 FIFA World Cup, which was held jointly by Japan and South Korea. The excitement surrounding Asia’s first hosting of the World Cup swept the continent, and watching football on television became “fashionable” for all Mongolians, whereas it had previously been simply an indulgence of those already involved in playing the sport locally. However, the remarkable fact is that this widespread support was maintained after the World Cup left Asia and live matches returned to unsociable hours in the middle of the night. The mass appeal of this year’s World Cup in Brazil will no doubt boost the popular reach of football once again, and if the example from 2002 is anything to go by, then this groundswell of interest will be sustained in the future.

Football’s popularity is not confined to Ulaanbaatar’s cosmopolitan population. The Football Fans in Dornod Facebook group has 350 active members who meet up regularly to watch games together, as well as playing the sport themselves and organizing games for youngsters. Sh.Urgoo, a secondary school teacher who manages the organization, suggests that football is increasingly important in young children’s lives, who play at school, and talk about their favorite players and teams in English language lessons.

Targeting children has been a major policy of the Mongolian Football Federation (MFF), whose grassroots program has sought to promote football through physical education at schools. Their project to build artificial pitches, train coaches, and organize competitions at schools has so far covered seven of Mongolia’s 21 provinces. When complete, they hope to have introduced 200,000 children to football in over 800 secondary schools. Additionally, the MFF has been organizing a grassroots coaching session at the National Stadium every Children’s Day since 2002, the latest of which reached maximum capacity attendance of 300 people.

D.Ganbat, general secretary of the MFF, suggests that, as these children grow older, there will also naturally evolve opportunities for young adults to play, to increase the size and competitiveness of Mongolia’s national amateur and semi-professional leagues. However, Zorigtsaikhan, who—in addition to being an AC Milan fan—plays as a goalkeeper at the amateur Oasis Football Club, suggests that these programs are long overdue, claiming that there are still not enough opportunities for young adults who demonstrate their love of football by supporting European teams to play themselves. Zorigtsaikhan argues that this is largely due to the poor condition of fields across the country, although the artificial pitches being built in conjunction with the MFF are slowly solving this problem, rejuvenating the country’s crumbling sports infrastructure.

The appeal of football to Mongolians, therefore, seems to precede interest in getting out on the pitch themselves. Both Zorigtsaikhan and D.Ganbat emphasize how football’s increasing popularity comes from the social dimension of being able to watch, enjoy, and discuss games with their friends. There is substantial opportunity to translate this widespread passion into mass-participation sport—an opportunity that is, slowly but surely, being taken.

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