She shoots, she scores

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.

The scandal left its mark on the Turkish Football Federation, but also provided a valuable lesson for this time around: it seems more organized, and intent on promoting women's soccer to a doubtful nation.

A part of its pitch requires dressing up the game for the skeptics. Whereas sex most definitely sells in many other soccer-mad societies, in Turkey it seems all the marketeers require is a little dose of femininity, the idea being to bridge societal reservations against the idea of women playing the game. 

To this end, the publicity material for the federation is emblazoned with suggestive imagery: a stiletto heel resting on a soccer ball, or a chic purse made from the familiar black-and-white hexagons.

“All men in Turkey want a wife or girlfriend who likes football, who can talk football, but it’s impossible at the moment,” Or said. “We use images like this to show men that a woman who likes football is still a woman.”

For the ladies, the advantages of women’s soccer speak for themselves. Although there are very few financial gains for the players, benefits such as better access to education, scholarships and job opportunities make it an appealing amateur pursuit.

Emine Unlu is a case in point. Growing up outside Hakkari, a town in the predominantly Kurdish and conservative southeast, Unlu spent any time not working on the family farm kicking a soccer ball around the streets.

In 2007, the federation began looking for women to play on the first women’s national team — at a time when there were only eight women’s teams in the nation. A group of local men who had always considered Unlu’s inclination for soccer a bit of an oddity called the federation and told them they had someone to check out.

At national tryouts, it was ruled that Unlu, then only 15, was too young to play. But her skills didn’t go unnoticed, and before long she was recruited to another Turkish team. The move gave Unlu more than simply a chance to play on a real pitch: it moved her to a private high school – a world away from her village, where few girls make it past 8th grade.

For players like Unlu, hoping for the chance to make it to the big leagues one day, one can only hope that this time women’s soccer really scores.

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