Skirting religion and convention, Turkish women are taking to the soccer pitch.
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Out on the field she’s skilled: She deftly maneuvers the ball across the field, and her coach describes her as a solid teammate. But for Cansu Topcu, a key player on Marmara University’s women’s soccer team, indulging her passion for soccer requires more than just talent and training.
In Turkey, soccer is unequivocally seen as a male domain. Female teams are anomalous. In a country of 70 million, only 798 women and girls are registered as players with the Turkish Football Federation, compared to about 230,000 registered men.
Their opportunities to train and play are just as rare. Just to get to practice, Topcu must undertake a two-hour trek into Istanbul’s sprawling metropolis where her team meets.
And it's not just the commute that makes playing difficult. In predominantly Muslim Turkey, the idea of a woman playing soccer tends to attract reactions ranging from sarcasm to disbelief. In all of soccer-mad Europe — which in sporting terms, broadly encompasses Turkey — Turkey and Albania are the only two countries without a professional women's league.
“My parents don’t like that I play. They worry that I will get hurt and they don’t see a future for me in soccer,” Topcu said. “But it clears my head, I like it so much. I’m going to keep playing.”
Topcu is the advance guard of Turkey’s new women’s soccer league, itself a response to the rising global popularity of women's soccer and to pressure from European organizations looking to increase female participation in the sport.
Still in its 18-game inaugural season, the league must contend with significant cultural and financial obstacles.
“Many people believe that football [the European term for soccer] changes the postures of the girls, that it makes girls act like men and that only ugly girls play football,” said Erden Or, the federation’s development officer for women’s soccer. “We try to break these myths."
Or and his team have been crisscrossing Turkey, leading panel discussions in different cities with coaches and female players, and working to alleviate the most pressing financial limitations for new teams by providing free equipment and helping with transportation costs to games.
This is not the first attempt to promote women’s soccer in Turkey. In the 1990s a professional women's league existed in Turkey and lasted a decade. The league was dissolved in 2003 amid allegations of mismanagement and sexual impropriety. Stories of affairs between female players were especially scandalous in Turkey, where social values are conservative.
By: Nichole Sobecki