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Soccer steers teens to Christ
September 29, 2006
Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia — The Mongolian team ran off the field in Gothenburg, Sweden, victorious.
A goal scored on a penalty kick helped them defeat Swedish team Söderbärke GOIF to land in the top 16 in the Gothia Cup, a prestigious worldwide youth soccer tournament held July 17-21.
For coach Jardel da Silva, however, the true victory was not on the field, but in the players’ hearts.
UB United, the first team from Mongolia ever to compete in the Gothia Cup, is part of an Ulaanbaatar soccer ministry through Joint Christian Services International. Leaders have expanded the program, opening newer soccer clubs in the Xailastai and Sharhad districts of Ulaanbaatar and in Sukhbaatar Aimag, two days east of the capital. More than 150 youths are part of the club programs.
Organizers from JCS, a partner program to Mennonite Church Canada Witness, hope that through soccer young people in Mongolia’s capital will learn life skills, gain self-confidence, work well in teams and begin to respect authority.
“Part of what we are teaching is ethics and character training,” said Marlow Ramsay, an administrator at JCS through Mennonite Church Canada Witness and its partner Mennonite Mission Network. “That leads us to spiritual things. Why should you have good character? Why should you do the right things? There’s got to be a reason.”
The reason is Christ.
“Our biggest goal is to lead them to Christ,” said da Silva. “Besides that, on the social part, it’s to keep them away from alcohol and bad behavior like addictions and fighting. We give them a purpose to live their lives as healthily as they can.”
The club offers Bible studies and English classes, inviting each participant to join. Not everyone comes, but playing time is not based on language study or on belief.
“They know we are Christian,” da Silva said. “We don’t force them to go to study or church. … This is a process. Maybe someday the seeds we plant will grow and bear fruit.”
Some youths already are blossoming.
Ankhaa, 17, came from a rough area of Xailastai. The soccer club gave him somewhere to go, and he took advantage of the teachings there — both on and off the field. One day on the street, a fight started. Ankhaa was involved. Another boy was beaten badly.
The victim’s mother found Ankhaa at his school. She threatened to call the police unless she was paid. Ankhaa had no money.
But he had the soccer club.
Club leaders, da Silva said, decided to pay if Ankhaa agreed to work for the club. Ankhaa was overwhelmed. He continued to return to the meetings and Bible studies and, this time, truly listened. He became a leader, excelled in English class and, two years after soccer first drew him to UB United, he decided to follow Jesus.
Ankhaa now attends a local church and plans to be baptized. He is an assistant coach and leader at the Xailastai club.
B. Ochinhuyad, a boy from Xailastai, struggled with truth-telling for years. He started attending the UB United Bible study after joining the soccer club.
“I did not believe in anything and in anyone,” he said. “Now I believe in Jesus and what he did for me. … I know now that I do not need to lie.”
Other boys tell similar stories. B. Otgonpurev used to fight frequently. Now, instead of giving out bruises, he gives others news about Jesus.
The boys also spread interest in soccer. Their trip to Sweden has led to appearances on Mongolian television and radio stations and increased interest in the club, especially when the team did well. After losing to two Swedish teams and tying a German squad in pool play, UB United won their first two matches in the B-tournament, advancing to the final 16 before losing to an Austrian squad that made the tournament finals.
Because of the results, da Silva and other organizers are fielding phone calls from others interested in joining the club.
Da Silva, a mission worker from Brazil who has spent the last five years in Mongolia with his wife, Inez, and two children, is moving to Bayonhongar, about 390 miles from Ulaanbaatar. While he hopes to be involved in church planting and discipleship training, he has his eye on another club team as well.
Joint Christian Services International is the organization that enables Mennonite Church Canada Witness to send workers to Mongolia.
Sidebar: On a cleat and a prayer
By Ryan Miller
Just getting to the Gothia Cup was a challenge. Through efforts by an Interact staff member, Radio Sweden paid $25,000 to sponsor the team. When da Silva first went to apply for visas, the embassy official nearly laughed in his face. The players, he told the coach, were flight risks.
Da Silva told the official that they would pray about it and apply anyway. When they applied, listing the reasons for the trip, they received the visas without a problem.
“The main thing is that we honor the God who has made all this possible,” da Silva said. “During the trip, kids saw many times of God helping us, of God moving and doing something very special.”
The week before the tournament, Murun, one of the team’s top players, twisted his arm, which was placed in a cast. When the cast was removed in Gothenburg before an exhibition game, the scorer was in plenty of pain.
“He couldn’t move due to pain,” da Silva said. “I said, ‘We’re going to pray for him and he’s going to play tomorrow.’”
So they prayed.
The next morning, the pain remained and the player sat on the bench. When da Silva looked his way, the player nodded. He entered the game in the last 10 minutes and scored the winning goal in the final minute of play.
“At some times I felt like Moses leading the Israelites in the desert. (The Israelites) could see God doing things, but they couldn’t believe so they were always doubting God’s movement,” da Silva said.