Editors note: Lucas Beard is a Durango High School graduate who is traveling in and writing about Mongolia for a year as a Fulbright Scholar.
A young man takes a shot inside the Ulaanbaatar Universitys gymnasium. Mongolian soccer games usually are played indoors because of the bitter cold climate.
Finding a soccer game to play in Mongolia isnt easy. After phone calls, aimless Google searches and pleas to my few Mongolian friends, I eventually managed to find a game held Tuesday nights in the Ulaanbaatar Universitys gymnasium. As I walked to the first game, I admit to being a little nervous. The butterflies in my stomach reminded me of my brief junior-varsity stint as a Demon at Durango High School.
When I arrived, I spotted a group of middle-aged Mongolian men chain-smoking cigarettes in the parking lot. Fully outfitted in various professional jerseys, these rotund men gesticulated wildly when they saw me walk into the parking lot. Their bellies strained the nylon of the England and Germany soccer jerseys as they eagerly welcomed me to the smoke circle. My anxiety lessened some.
Soccer isnt a popular sport in Mongolia. Being an American, Im accustomed to soccer being relegated to the lower reaches of cultural relevance. While Durango has historically more exposure to the sport because of the Fort Lewis College soccer teams phenomenal success, it is still outmatched by the more mainstream American sports. Unlike in America, where girls soccer is played at all levels, Mongolian soccer is entirely a mens game.
In Mongolia, the sporting scene is dominated by the three so-called manly sports of wrestling, horseback racing and archery. Men train throughout the year for these games of speed, strength and skill in preparation for the annual Naadam festival. Women arent customarily invited to participate in these games, which carry huge national prestige.
Victorious Mongolian wrestlers during the festival are bestowed special titles, including Zaan (elephant), Arslan (lion) and Avraga (titan). Meanwhile, the prowess of the Mongolian archers, especially on horseback, was said to be their greatest advantage against the armored knights of medieval Europe. Their bowmanship directly contributed to the largest land empire in history, stretching from Korea to Austria, Siberia to Vietnam.
After the soccer games cigarette-circle warm-up, I changed. I didnt bring the appropriate attire, and I felt silly next to the uniformed Mongolian teams. The floor of the gym was spongy, with a little bounce that might have come from the material or a result of periodic water damage. Either way, it felt good to run around. While I stretched, the Mongolians grabbed another cigarette and smashed shots at a hapless skinny fellow who had been badgered into playing goalie. When we started the first game, I tried to shake out my nervous feelings and remember the Saturday mornings spent playing at Gateway Park.
It could have gone better. I got embarrassed by a 15-year-old and outrun by a 40-year-old, but I had fun. And I was invited back. For the last three months, I played twice a week with the same group of Mongolian men.
These weekly soccer games had been going well until by chance I met an American soccer player, Hazel, and decided to invite her to come play with the guys. She had recently arrived in Mongolia as an English teacher and asked about joining a soccer league. Hazel assured me she was a decent player, so I encouraged her to come and join.
While Hazel and I walked to the soccer field, I started wondering why Id never seen women playing soccer in Mongolia. I was more than a little apprehensive about bringing a foreign girl to play. Could I be violating some taboo? Might I lose my spot on field? Never be invited back for breaching fraternal trust?
When we arrived to watch the customary nicotine pregame ritual, I told her to stand behind me, and let me do the talking. The customarily jovial Mongolians grew silent. They stared hard at me, then at Hazel, and back again. I started thinking this was a bad idea.
I convinced them to give her a trial, vouched for her and promised that she would always play on my team. During the negotiations, they snickered a little before finishing their cigarettes and moving onto the field. To Hazels credit, she smiled with confidence throughout the exchange. I could tell she was nervous, but didnt let it show. I think the Mongolians were expecting her to be a colossal failure, a reminder that manly sports should stay manly.
What they received was a lesson in how to play soccer. Hazel dominated the game from the beginning and ended as the sessions top scorer: five beautiful goals to her name. After each goal, some of the men, who had originally been skeptical about her inclusion, begrudgingly smiled at her and shook her hand in acknowledgment, if not congratulations.
At the games last whistle, Hazels playing had turned the skeptics into believers, and the Mongolian men openly decided to allow her into the game. She was an oddity, but an oddity that scored goals. While women still dont participate in the annual Naadam wrestling events, at least one woman is allowed into the formerly gendered game of Mongolian soccer.