Meet the Mongolian Premier League Side Run By An International Group of Fans
Bayangol FC positions itself as more than a football team: it's a community run by an international group – Italians, Americans, Brits and more – who are trying to help young people in Mongolia
"Olawale was contacted by someone who claimed to be an agent about going to play in Russia. He agreed and got on a plane with this guy. But then the 'agent' ended up dumping him in Tajikistan and handed him over to what is called a 'handler'. Olawale was playing over there under this guy's watch. He took Olawale's passport and kept any money Olawale earned from football for himself."
I'm talking to Jimmy Kroeger, one of three directors of Bayangol FC, a Mongolian Premier League side based in the nation's capital, Ulaanbaatar. "Olawale stole his passport back and ran to the border of Kyrgyzstan, illegally, where he befriended a Scottish journalist called David McArdle, who contacted Paul [Watson, one of Bayangol FC's other directors]. We decided to take Olawale in. We brought him to Mongolia, housed him, fed him, and put him on the squad."
Bayangol positions itself as more than a football team: it's a community run by an international group – Italians, Americans, Brits and more – who are trying to help young people in Mongolia. "We're not in it for the money – we're in it for furthering football over there," Jimmy explains. "We're trying to open people's eyes to the possibility that, if it's their dream to be successful in football, we want to give them the opportunity to get to that point."
It's safe to say that Bayangol has improved Olawale's life and, as Jimmy went on to tell me, he's not the only young person in trouble that the club has been happy to help. "There were two Nigerian players who I think had been playing for a few years in Mongolia; they were playing for a club, but the club decided to stop paying them. This left them homeless, and they failed to renew their visas, so they were now in the country illegally. We decided to help.
"We took them into the same apartment. There was also an American 'keeper called Austin Rogers, from Portland, who had been playing in the second division in Albania, so we brought him over, too."
However, Jimmy claims that the Mongolian government subsequently "passed a law banning Nigerians, Afghani, Irani, Iraqi and Syrian people from the country," and that several players – including Olawale – were deported as a result. Jimmy says that were the alleged ban to be lifted, the club would be happy to bring them back.
Bayangol have sought to help young people who have been through difficult experiences by housing them, feeding them and using football to give them a sense of community. But the club isn't always able to help out on its own. That was the case with another Mongolian teen, Ochiroo, whose helping hand came from strangers across the globe.
"Ochiroo was approached by a fake agent, who had apparently arranged him a trial or a spot at LA Galaxy in the U.S. He asked Ochiroo for an amount of money to cover some kind of cost and promised to get it back to him once he'd got over there.
"Obviously he jumped at the opportunity – who wouldn't? Everyone is kind of naive at that age, and if something like that comes up, you're going to jump at it without doing much research first, unfortunately."
"Ochiroo's family took out a loan for the amount of money that he needed and, obviously, the agent was found out to be a fake, and Ochiroo was scammed out of this money. The family were in danger of becoming homeless at that point – the loan had been a substantial amount for them."
"So I believe that Paul went on talkSPORT last year to talk about it and a lot people from the UK donated to repay the money the family had lost. They were saved from becoming homeless."
Ochiroo demonstrates how football can be a force for good. There's an undeniable spirit at work when fans unite like this – why else would people from such diverse backgrounds band together to enact positive change via a Mongolian football club? Why else would strangers donate their money to help that same club continue its work for young people that they'll likely never meet? Through fans' generosity, Ochiroo's family were able to keep their home. Theirs is a remarkable story – and Jimmy had one more for me.
"Paul has a lot of connections outside Mongolia. They started talking to Barnet, and they were the most interested in bringing Mongolian players over to gain some experience. So Ganbaa [a Mongolian teen] played two games for Barnet in the reserve squad, and he scored three goals – two of which were against Jose Mourinho's son – which was pretty cool. Ganbaa opened a lot of eyes, and [Barnet] were interested in bringing him over and talking about how we could do that, but obviously the visa situation is extremely difficult in England – now more than ever. They couldn't work anything out, but that's not to say that in the future they wouldn't give him another look."
By now you might be wondering what the Mongolian Premier League is like: "There're no youth systems over there; there's only a few stadiums. The national team suffers because there's no real indoor training facilities, so there's nowhere to train during the winter – and it gets to minus 30 in Mongolia in the winter, maybe minus 40.
Jimmy explained that corruption is endemic in the Mongolian leagues, and that this presents a challenge when running a club that works for its young players, and does so in an ethical manner on a shoestring budget.
So how did Bayangol break into the Mongolian Premier League despite not having major financial backing? It's a story that feels a world away from the English game.
"We had come in third last year, in the second league in Mongolia, and we lost in a play-off to the eighth-placed team [in the top-tier] by one away goal. Both games were played in the same stadium – so go figure that!" he laughs.
"One of the teams that had been promoted, Continental FC – who I think are owned by Continental tyre company – declined their promotion, I think because of financial reasons. Since we were the next team up, we were offered promotion around 10 days before the season was supposed to start. We were basically told that, if we didn't accept promotion, we would be disbanded."
Accept promotion or your team will be disbanded – welcome to Mongolian football.
"We were already playing against budget for a second division team. The coaches we had at that time also played for other, rival Premier League teams. I don't think you'd ever hear that anywhere else," he laughs. "But when we had to accept promotion, there's the rule that your coach couldn't have anything under a UEFA B or equivalent coaching licence. And our coaches weren't to that level. Plus, they obviously couldn't coach us anyway, because they were already with other Premier League teams who they'd rather play for than coach us! So it's 10 days before the season started: you're promoted or you're gone. And we'd lost our coaches..."
Where do you find an available coach like that in Mongolia? Paul and Jimmy, full of hope, turned to Twitter.
"Paul, Enki [Batsumber the club's Mongolia owner] and I put outs tweets saying, 'Anybody looking for a managerial position in the Mongolian Premier League? Send us your CV.'
"Surprisingly, we actually received a tonne of CVs – a lot of which were young kids just trying to live their dream, or Football Manager players, or whatever the case might be!
"But one, from a guy called Shadab Iftikhar, stood out. He had coached in non-league a lot; he had helped a team called Hesketh Bank AFC avoid relegation. He had even done some scouting for Roberto Martinez, with Wigan and Everton, and they'd become friends. He contacts him every now and then to see how things are going. And Shadab has a UEFA A licence. We were shocked that someone like that would be applying for a position like ours."
Thanks to Twitter, Bayangol had a qualified coach and could take up their place in the Premier League. They're now seven games into the 2016 season, though unfortunately their record currently reads five defeats and two draws. Nevertheless, Jimmy is confident that the club can turn their season around and avoid relegation when the campaign ends in mid-October.
It's a tall order, but that's the sort of belief required to lead an unlikely group of players into the Mongolian Premier League. Given the work they've done thus far, you can be sure of a positive reaction from fans across the globe if they can beat the drop.
Bayangol are crowdfunding to raise funds for the remainder of the season – they're targeting £3,000 to help them through the final 11 games, with £1,200 raised at the time of writing. If you would like to help them, please join this writer in donating whatever you can here.