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She shoots, she scores

Skirting religion and convention, Turkish women are taking to the soccer pitch.

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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