Is Mongolia footballÃ¢ÂÂs next superpower?
Like Martin Luther King, Tsakhia Elbegdori has a dream. The Mongolian president's dream is both more prosaic than King's and as outlandish. He would like his country - the 19th largest in the world but only, FIFA reckons, the 183rd best football nation - to host the 2050 World Cup: "You have to have dreams and maybe I will even have the chance to see my great-great-grandchildren play in a World Cup in Mongolia."
Elbedgori is used to defying the odds - he's the first non-Communist president of Mongolia - but even he recognises this is a tall order. Some facts of life are so intractable even heads of state can't change them.
The most intractable obstacle facing Elbegdori is the weather. Summers in Mongolia are hot and short, the winters long and bone-chilling. The average annual temperature in Ulan Bator is -2.4ÃÂºC, colder than any other capital on earth. The Mongolian football season lasts just five months. The only way to change that - short of some grandiose, sinister scheme to interfere with the climate - is to invest in artificial pitches and indoor arenas that can host games in football's younger sibling, five-a-side futsal.
Wrestling, sumo and gardening
Wrestling and archery are the traditional Mongolian sports - football feels, in comparison, like a foreign import. Mongolia only joined FIFA in 1999 and, out of a population of 2.7 million, only just over 5,000 are registered footballers. The two largest cities - the capital and Erdent - have all but monopolised the league title since the democratic revolution in 1990.
While Mongolians have won Olympic medals in judo and pistol shooting, and the best wrestlers have flourished in the lucrative world of Japanese sumo, no native footballer has yet emerged as a paradigm-shifting role model. The national side's top scorers of all-time are probably striker Ganbaataryn Togsbayar and free-scoring defender and skipper Lumbengarav Donorov who have six goals apiece.
Mongolian sumo-star Hakuho celebrates victory in style
That, in case you were wondering, is how this blog started. I decided to while away a Saturday morning trying to see which country's all-time top goalscorer has found the back of the net least often. So far Gavin Clinton, with four goals for the Turks and Caicos Islands, is the least prolific all-time topscorer for any FIFA nation. Look, I know it sounds sad but it's better than gardening - especially if you're as bad at gardening as I am.
Togsbayar and Donorov play in Mongolia's small, imperfectly formed Premier League although, bizarrely, there have been claims Blackburn are scouting Togsbayar. He is still only 25 and has been the league's top scorer in the last two years (scoring 14 goals in 2009 and another 14 in 2010) so anything's possible.
The Mongolians take one hell of a beating
Mongolia has never looked remotely like qualifying for a major tournament and has the tragicomic distinction of being the only FIFA member to have ever lost to Guam, a tiny overseas US territory in the Western Pacific.
That ignominious 1-0 defeat last March makes Elbedegori's dream sound even further away. Still, the national side's comeback could start this week when the Blue Wolves, as they are known, take on the Philippines in an AFC Challenge Cup tie in Ulan Bator - the visitors have been supplied with special two-layered winter football kits to make sure they donÃ¢ÂÂt freeze in a climatic, rather than sporting, sense.
The one advantage Mongolia (which is five times as big as Poland) should have is land. But Elbedgori is fighting to stop developers bulldozing playing fields and football pitches. In 2006, according to rsssf.com, the Mongolian League didnÃ¢ÂÂt complete a proper season because: "The 2006 championship was not held as a normal league but in two stages of four groups due to reconstruction of the only football pitch in Mongolia."
The league runs properly today, albeit with a complex three-stage structure that doesn't make it any easier to market. The clubs are so obscure they don't even have entries on Wikipedia although one enterprising Lonely Planet reader ranked watching a match at the Naadam stadium as the 93rd best thing to do in Ulan Bator!
Still, the struggle to protect pitches illustrates why the president's dream may be less absurd than it sounds. Mongolia has rich mineral resources and foreign investment in industry and infrastructure could provide the economic momentum to help Mongolian football develop. If FIFA sticks to its strategy of boldly taking the World Cup to countries where the tournament has never been before, Elbedgori's great-great-grandchildren could yet kick off the 2050 World Cup.
Mind you, you'd probably get shorter odds on the resurrection of Genghis Khan.
Damn, I had set out to write a blog about Mongolian football without mentioning the conqueror who became synonymous with the phrase "the Mongol hordes" but some clichÃÂ©s are, I guess, simply inescapable.