ISTANBUL – On a recent cold, gray Sunday, two Turkish premier league soccer teams enthusiastically ran onto the field of a small stadium on the outskirts of Istanbul.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.
By: YIGAL SCHLEIFER