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In Turkey, Women Playing Soccer Vie for Acceptance
March 4, 2009
Turks are soccer mad, with games regularly attended by tens of thousands of boisterous fans. But at this game, between host Kartalspor and Ankara’s Gazi Universitesispor, the 22 players on the field outnumbered the people shivering in the stands.
The weather was probably not to blame for the poor attendance; it was more likely because of who was playing. The two teams are part of Turkey’s new women’s soccer league, and although Turks may be soccer fanatics, there is a deep ambivalence in this socially conservative, predominantly Muslim society about women playing the game.
Halfway through its 18-game inaugural season, the league has met a combination of indifference, curiosity and occasional hostility.
“Football is seen as a man’s game in Turkey,” said Nurper Ozbar, 30, the coach of Marmara Universitesispor, the top team in the second division of the league, which also has two youth divisions.
“We’ve had men come to watch our practices and yell at our players: ‘What are you doing here? You should be at home, cooking!’ ” said Ozbar, one of the few women accredited as a soccer coach in Turkey, and the only one in Istanbul. “It’s going to take time to change this.”
Turkey has thriving professional women’s basketball and volleyball leagues. Soccer, for the most part, remains a men’s-only zone. In a country of 70 million, only 798 women and girls are registered as players with the Turkish Football Federation, soccer’s governing body. In comparison, about 230,000 male players are registered with the federation.
For the players in the women’s league, just finding their way to a team can be a monumental challenge. Deniz Bicer, a midfielder with Gazi Universitesispor, the only women’s team in the Turkish capital, Ankara, has to travel almost two hours each way to get to practice.
“In my neighborhood, because it was seen as a man’s game, there was pressure on me and my family that I not play football,” the 18-year-old Bicer said after Gazi’s 3-1 victory over Kartalspor.
“People kept telling me this is a man’s game, you should be interested in other sports, but football is a passion for me,” she said.
The new league is Turkey’s second attempt at establishing women’s soccer. An amateur league of about two dozen teams existed in Turkey for a decade until it was shut down in 2002 amid allegations of mismanagement and rumors of affairs between female players — particularly scandalous in this country.
This time around, the Turkish federation appears intent on promoting the idea of women’s and girls’ soccer to a skeptical nation.
“A lot of our work is public relations, to convince families that girls can play football,” said Erden Or, 33, the federation’s development officer for women’s soccer.
“Some believe that playing football can harm a girl’s build and make her manly,” Or said.
“They believe that it’s a man’s game, so we have to show them proof that they can play football without a problem,” added Or, whose wife chides him for kicking the ball around with their 3-year-old daughter.
Or has been crisscrossing Turkey, staging panel discussions in different cities with coaches and female players and answering questions from worried parents and resistant physical education teachers. When he finds out about a girl whose parents refuse to let her play soccer, Or said, he phones them to help ease their minds.
“If she wants to play, I will call them directly, like a father inquiring about a bride,” he said.
Selling women’s soccer also requires dolling it up. One of the new logos for the league features a slender woman’s hand with long, red-painted fingernails cupping a soccer ball. The background on Or’s computer screen is a photograph of a soccer cleat with a stiletto heel.
Despite Or’s effort and some financial assistance from the Turkish federation, getting by is a struggle for most of the teams in the new league. The news media have mostly ignored it, and sponsors have been hard to find. Kartalspor had to forfeit an away game a few weeks ago because the team could not afford to make the six-hour trip to Izmir.
“We’re getting a lot of moral support, but not a lot of financial support,” said Ozbar, the Marmara Universitesispor coach. “We don’t have a sponsor, so I’m paying for our expenses out of my pocket.”
She added: “Our players don’t look at this as a profession because they can’t earn money from it yet. They can’t picture a life for themselves in football.”
There are some hopeful signs for the league. Although the first-division teams tend to come from more liberal cities, girls’ teams are sprouting in unlikely places, including in Hakkari, a town in the predominantly Kurdish and conservative southeast region.
In Sakarya, just outside Istanbul, the local women’s team’s winning streak has led to real crowds at its games.
“In Turkey, the biggest power is success,” said Sinan Panta, 41, the president of the Sakarya Yenikent Gunesspor Kulubu team, currently atop the women’s first division with 10 wins, 1 tie and 1 loss. “At our first game, there were 100 people. As we started winning more games, we’re now seeing 2,500 or 3,000 fans at our games.”
For next season, Panta said he had rounded up enough cash to bring in a Nigerian transfer, midfielder Onome Ebi, who played on her country’s 2008 Olympic team.
“The people here initially weren’t friendly to the idea that women could play football, but we’ve broken that idea down,” said Panta, a former professional player. “We’ve achieved our goal: we’ve made Sakarya accept women’s football. We’ve succeeded in a conservative place.”
At the Kartalspor-Gazi Universitesispor game, a motley mix of curious men and boys gathered in the stadium, a bleak, half-finished cement structure overlooking a busy highway. Standing nearby was Selmin Odabas, the mother of a player named Selin, a speedy 20-year-old striker for the home team.
“In the beginning, we didn’t want our daughter to play,” Odabas said. “We were worried that it would affect her posture, her character, even her sexual orientation. We put her in volleyball, in track, but nothing could stop her.”
As Selin’s skills improved — she was named to the national women’s team — their attitude changed, Odabas said.
She pointed out a wiry man nearby shouting encouragement at Kartalspor’s players and cursing their opponents.
“Now her father is a fanatic fan,” she said.
Bulent Cinar, a translator, contributed reporting.