Members of Kartal Spor

ISTANBUL, Turkey (WOMENSENEWS)–To indulge her passion for playing soccer, 18-year-old Selin Odabas has to go to some extreme lengths.

Turkish schools offer little in the way of organized sports for girls and female teens. In order to practice with one of the few female soccer teams in Istanbul, Odabas undertakes a three-hour trek across the sprawling city to a sports complex.

It’s not just the commute that makes playing difficult. In Turkey, where soccer is called football, the sport is widely seen as a male’s game, too rough for women and girls to play. In all of soccer-mad Europe, Turkey and Albania are the only two countries without a professional women’s league.

"People have told me, ‘Let this go. Girls shouldn’t play football,’" says Odabas, who graduated from high school last year and is currently preparing for her university entrance exams.

Turkey now has slightly more than a dozen female teams nationwide, but opportunities to play for Odabas and other young women will soon be increasing, as will the visibility of women’s soccer in Turkey.

In the next few months, the Turkish Football Federation, the body that governs the sport here, will be launching a nationwide, 15-team female league for amateur players between the ages of 17 and 19.

Federation officials say the league comes in response to the rising global popularity of women’s soccer and to pressure from the Geneva-based Union of European Football Associations, European soccer’s governing organization, which has emphasized increasing female participation in the sport. Turkish officials say the new league is the first step toward establishing leagues for even younger players and ultimately a professional women’s league.

For advocates of women’s soccer in Turkey, the new league, which will be run out of the federation’s Istanbul headquarters, is a welcome and long-awaited development.

"There is a big potential for girls’ football in Turkey," says Gursel Hattat, who coaches Kartal Spor, the team that Odabas plays on. "There are 6 million girls studying in the elementary and secondary schools. This is a big talent pool. This is even more than the population of some European countries."

Desire to Play, But Few Opponents

"Currently, the girls have a desire to play football and to let them express this feeling would be a positive thing for them," adds Hattat, who founded the all-female Kartal Spor team after more and more girls started coming to the sports center where he works asking to play on the boys’ teams. In the two years since, Hattat’s team has become so good it now has a hard time finding others to play against, since men’s and boys’ teams refuse to play them for fear of being embarrassed by losing to a group of girls.

"I believe their self-confidence will improve and their sense of personal freedom will increase by playing," he says. "It will improve their self-respect and the respect they get from others. All of this will improve their lives."

During a recent practice, Kartal Spor’s players provide a glimpse of their skills. Playing on an indoor field, the team practices, their shots on the goal booming like thunder in the echo-filled chamber. Focused on their kicks and dribbles, they are oblivious to the gaggle of small boys standing to the side watching every step the girls take with curiosity.

The prospect of an amateur league, though, grabs the girls’ attention.

"It’s a fantastic idea," says Seval Kirac, one of the team’s star players. "There are a lot of women players who have no place to play. It’s important for the development of a national women’s team and for us individually, because Turkey is far behind other countries in terms of women’s football."

Facing Family Pressures

Kirac, an 18-year-old with long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, became interested in soccer nine years ago when she started kicking the ball around with her father and brother. Like Odabas and other girls on the team, she faced strong family pressure at first; an older brother was especially adamant that she had no place on the field.

Ceren Tokdemir, an Istanbul sports psychologist who until recently had been working with the federation on developing women’s soccer, says that family-based opposition is the biggest challenge facing the sport.

"Now we are fighting against this prejudice," she says. "But the good thing is that there is potential. We realized that girls want to play football. They love it very much. They watch football and they want to play, but their families won’t let them play."

There are other hurdles as well. Since 1987, the ministry of education has ruled that girls are not allowed to play soccer in schools; wrestling and weightlifting, two other celebrated sports in Turkey, are also prohibited.

Advocates of women’s soccer believe there is strong opposition coming from coaches and players in Turkey’s professional men’s league, who appear intent on protecting their turf.

But women’s soccer must also contend with its own checkered past. A professional women’s league, with 24 teams from across the country, existed in Turkey for a decade, but was dissolved in 2003 amid allegations of mismanagement and sexual impropriety. Stories of affairs between female players were especially scandalous in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation where social values can be quite conservative.

"We need to be very careful," warns Ahmet Guvener, a former planning coordinator with the soccer federation. "If a new (professional) league ends up with the same problems and collapses, then that will be the end of women’s football in Turkey."

Fostering Professionalism

By focusing on restarting women’s soccer in Turkey with younger players, federation officials appear to be trying a strategy that allows them to closely watch the players’ development–both athletically and personally–and foster a greater sense of professionalism among them before they move up to the big leagues.

Coaches and players, though, say the most important ingredient for ensuring the success of women’s and girls’ soccer in Turkey may be the backing of the government.

"If they want to develop a women’s league in Turkey, it should be supported very well financially and it should be advertised very well," says Hattat. "Right now there are 15 girls’ teams in Turkey with about 280 players. I believe that if the government promotes and supports these teams enough, we could have 20 or 30 times the number of players."

Players on the practice field say they’ve sacrificed a lot in order to play and would like to see that sacrifice rewarded.

"We’re not only doing this for fun, we want to be professionals," says Mevlude Ozturk, 18, taking a break from juggling a soccer ball with her feet. "Everyone wants to develop their profession to the top point and that’s what we would like to do with our football playing."

"There are some very big talents in Turkey," she adds, "but women’s football has to be supported by everyone."

Yigal Schleifer is a freelance writer based in Istanbul, Turkey, where he works as a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and the Jerusalem Report.

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