When Murun Altankhuyag began playing college soccer in the United States in 2009, it was a big deal. Four years later he signed for Krabi F.C. of Thailand's second division, cementing his place in Mongolian footballing history as the country's first known player to play abroad. He was lauded again as the country's first player in Europe when he joined FK Mačva Šabac in March 2015. In 2016 wunderkind Ganbold Ganbayar made headlines as he joined Puskás Akadémia FC in Hungary and appeared against several high profile clubs in the 2017 Puskás Cup. However, there are a string of unrecognized Mongolians who have played abroad without many people noticing. One of those players is Ankhbayar Batmunkh.
Batmunkh was born in Ulaanbaatar on on 3 February 1994. He began playing football around age 12, joining in matches that the other children were playing in the streets of the capital. As a youth he played for Altan Shonkhor as his first club. In 2008 he began playing for the newly-formed Black Morgan which has gone through many name changes over the years and is now Khaan Khuns Crown Club in the Mongolian 1st League. He began his career as a striker and won the youth division's Golden Boot award in 2008. He stayed with the club through the 2011 season.
As a youth Batmunkh's performances also caught the attention of the youth national team setups. In April 2008 he was part of the under-14 squad for the EAFF Championship in Beijing, China. In July of that summer, he competed in the next round of matches in Guam. At this time he still played as a striker. Mongolia finished the tournament 8th out of 10 teams.
Following his four-year stint with Black Morgan he took a break from the sport for the 2012 season but he could not stay away from the game for long.
Following his career's season-long hiatus, he signed for Khasiin Khulguud of the Mongolian Premier League in 2013 and was a key figure of the club's defense in his role as a central defender as he transitioned from his former position of striker. That year the team finished sixth of seven teams following the twelve-match season and would not compete in the league the following year.
Batmunkh (#3) against Erchim FC in 2013
It was at this time that Batmunkh made the most dramatic move of his personal or professional life, enrolling as an economics student at the University of Vienna in Austria in October 2014.
Despite his move to a new continent, Batmunkh's passion for football did not waver. In fact, it only increased. In April 2015, the player linked up with ASK Elektra of the Wiener Stadtliga, the fourth tier of Austrian football. It was a long and grueling process for a Mongolian's paperwork to be cleared by the Austrian Football Association but after a six-week wait, he was cleared to play and made his first appearance for the reserve side. He eventually worked his way from a reserve team player to a substitute with the first team before eventually becoming a regular starter. He stayed with the club until January 2016 when he joined fellow Stadtliga team FC Union 12.
Again Batmunkh's official debut was delayed by paperwork. However, he began playing for the club under the name Erkhembayar Dugarjav until his move was completed. He quickly became a starter for his new club also.
His experience in Austria came to an abrupt end in Spring 2016 as he left his the University of Vienna without finishing his degree because of problems that he was experiencing and he returned to Mongolia. He wasted no time re-entering the Mongolian football scene, signing for Beşiktaş of the Mongolian 1st League, the second tier of Mongolian football that was formed during his time in Austria. Beşiktaş was the new name of Batmunkh's former club Black Morgan. The club finished in sixth place out of ten team's during his first season back.
The following season the club changed its name again to Khaan Khuns Crown Club and retained its place in the 1st League. Batmunkh's return to the Premier League was within his grasp as the club finished the 2017 season tied with second place promotion hopeful Gepro FC with 37 points, but ultimately earned the bronze medal because of the goal differential tie-breaker. Batmunkh took home individual honours, being named the league's best defender following the season.
The player's aspirations are to be expected: earn promotion and win the Premier League and work his way back into the national team picture. Although he has been away from international duty for a while, he can say what few Mongolians can, that he has club experience abroad. Although he intends to return to Khaan Khuns Crown Club next season, being named the 1st League's Best Defender is sure to get the attention of Premier League clubs.
Batmunkh's experience in Austria should change the entire way fans view the timeline of Mongolian players abroad. If one player could play in Europe without anyone noticing, how many others are there? Could there have been a Mongolian legionnaire before Murun Altankhuyag? The answer is yes. Not only is it possible, it has happened. Let's go back a little in our story.
In January 2016 FC Union 12 allowed Batmunkh to play for the team under the name Erkhembayar Dugarjav because that player was already registered with the team. Dugarjav is a Mongolian (who has since gained Austrian citizenship) who began playing in Austria for USVG Großrussbach in March 2010. He later joined FC Union 12 in March 2013. Dugarjav was playing for at least his second European club two years before Murun Altankhuyag signed for his first. He was also playing for a club abroad three years before his compatriot joined Krabi. This fact means that Dugarjav, not Altankhuyag, was the first Mongolian abroad...unless there are others that have not been discovered.
Although some critics may point that Altankhuyag signed for a second division club and Dugarjav and Batmunkh played for fourth division clubs, the Austrian clubs were likely of a similar level of competition and were registered clubs in a league that was part of the official league structure of a European association. Then there is the definition of "professional" footballer which could be the subject of a whole article of its own.
Another important point to remember is that Altankhuyag never actually appeared in a league fixture for FK Mačva Šabac while the other two Mongolians both made league appearances for their clubs. Therefore we can also say that Batmunkh and Dugarjav are also the first Mongolians to PLAY in Europe.
While stories like Batmunkh's change the known history of Mongolians abroad, there are two things which are not debatable: no Mongolian has ever signed for a first division club in any country other than Mongolia and that more Mongolians playing abroad can mean nothing but positive development for the country's national teams.
Editor's note: if anyone knows how to reach Erkhembayar Dugarjav please contact Mongolian Football Central using the "Contact" link at the top of the page.