Turkish women’s league champ dreams of being Europe’s best

Ataşehir Belediyespor won the Turkish Women’s Football League title the second time they played in the league. The team dreams of winning the title of the European Champions League as well. Credit: Today's Zaman
Mission was not accomplished for Ataşehir Belediyespor after they won the Turkish Women’s Football League title the second time they played in the league. The team dreams of much greater heights.
“Anybody, from the club president to the coach and footballers, should leave the team if they don’t believe that we can be the European champion,” said Ataşehir Mayor Battal İlgezdi, the highest authority in the Ataşehir sports club, to the members of the team.
The Ataşehir Belediyespor women’s football team is part of Ataşehir Belediyespor, a branch of İstanbul’s Ataşehir municipality, which took over the team from the Ümraniye Mevlana High School sports club, established in 2007.
Only two seasons have passed since the team began to play in the first division, but the greatest heights were set as the target for the team: the European championship. Having the support of the giant Ağaoğlu Holding behind it at the beginning of last season, Ataşehir Belediyesi did not face much challenge in clinching the league title. They started the season with several of the stars of Gazi Üniversitesi, the defending champion from the previous season.
Surely it will be much more challenging for the İstanbul side to struggle in the European Champions League. The team will earn a berth in the tournament after playing a qualifying round. The many handicaps that can be listed ahead of the tournament will not stop Ataşehir from dreaming of being the best in Europe.
Ataşehir Belediyespor coach Murat Ülkü acknowledges the hard task ahead. “It is a handicap that most of the players are university students and the team doesn’t have the opportunity to train together very often, which leads to a problem in establishing harmony between the players. Our footballers are weaker than their European counterparts who play for top teams. There are problems regarding the amateur status of women’s football in Turkey as well,” he says.
Ülkü thinks the support behind them will help overcome the difficulties. The coach said they have already agreed to sign with a number of players from the Turkish national team and they are about to add three foreign footballers to the squad following a Turkish Football Federation (TFF) decision, allowing the women’s teams to make transfers from abroad. “Our ultimate goal is the European Champions League title. By achieving this, we will both show the power of Turkish women to the world and fulfill our promise to our president,” he added.
It will be Ataşehir’s first appearance in Europe, but not Turkey’s. Before the İstanbul team, former champions Trabzonspor and Gazi Üniversitesi had represented Turkey in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. Both teams were trounced and eliminated in the qualifying rounds. But according to Ülkü, Ataşehir will not suffer the same fate. “They were not well prepared. But we, as Ataşehir Belediyespor, will be ready. With our chairman, managers, footballers and coaching team, we will succeed. We have to do it.”
Turkey does not even exist in the FIFA rankings in women’s football; hence, Ataşehir will participate in the drawing for the qualifying groups from the lowest lot.
The drawing will take place in Switzerland on June 26 while the first games will be played in early August. Turkey’s champion plans to begin trainings on June 16 and has scheduled two pre-season training camps abroad.
Women’s league still not given pro
In Turkey, the women’s league still has amateur status, while many European countries give professional status to their female footballers. Coach Ülkü had said in an earlier interview before the start of the season that Turkey still has a long way to go in women’s football. He said nothing has changed. “A change can happen if we can succeed. If we reach our goals, women’s football will surely get somewhere.”
“If the league had professional or at least semi-professional status, then sports betting would cover the women’s league. The teams would gain revenue and they could stop travelling to away matches in minibuses and instead fly to other cities. Even a small contribution would be good. In many European states, the leagues are professional,” Ülkü explained.
Various methods have been applied in European countries to enhance women’s football. Football clubs are encouraged to have female teams. Bayern Munich, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, Liverpool and Arsenal are among the clubs which have women’s football teams. In Turkey, Fenerbahçe used to have a women’s team but it did not survive long. Ülkü said Turkey’s topflight football clubs do not want to open women’s branches because of a lack of interest and the lack of revenue that can be earned through women’s football.
Name changed from ‘ladies’ to ‘women’
One of the developments regarding women’s football was a change in the name of the league. As it did in the basketball league, the TFF altered the name of the league from Ladies First Division to Women’s First Division on May 4. Other improvements included the federation-sponsored nationwide training programs for young female football players. The federation also earned the bid to host the Under-19 European Women’s Football Championship in Turkey. The tournament will take place in the southwestern province of Muğla in the summer of 2012.