x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Baggy trousers and no boots: girls' football, Turkish style

They come from a village, they wear baggy trousers and headscarves on the pitch - and they are women.

ISTANBUL // The football players of Salvarspor are different from those on many other football teams in Turkey. They come from a village, they wear baggy trousers and headscarves on the pitch - and they are women. "They don't want to play in shorts, they want to keep their baggy trousers," Veysel Solak, the team coach, said in a recent telephone interview from the village of Guneyyayla. "After all, we are Salvarspor."

"Salvar", pronounced "shalvar", is the Turkish word for the roomy and colourful trousers that are worn by some Turkish village women and that have become the hallmark of the team. Recently, Salvarspor was hired by an advertisement company for a widely seen chewing gum commercial on national television. Now the village team in Burdur province in south-western Turkey is looking for a sponsor that can pay for better football boots and other equipment. The exploits of Salvarspor are drawing attention to the difficult situation of women's football in this football-crazy country of more than 70 million people. Football officials say Turkey has to do much more to encourage its women to play.

Next week, on international women's day on March 8, they will be trying to do exactly that. A match between two female celebrity teams, fielding singers, businesswomen and journalists, will be played in Istanbul as an advertisement for women's football. No such encouragement is needed in Guneyyayla. Mr Solak, who is also the mayor of the village, said his team was looking forward to playing against other female teams in the region, but had to get into shape first. "Training has started on the village square," he said. The village's football pitch was still unusable because of winter conditions. Salvarspor currently has 14 players aged between 18 and 21, according to Mr Solak.

Salvarspor shot to nationwide fame in 2002, when the governor of Burdur visited the village of about 400 people and saw young women kicking a ball around, inspired by the success of the village's male team in a local cup competition. The sight of the female football players was unusual enough for the governor to call in the media, Mr Solak said. Shortly afterwards, the female players running around the pitch in their traditional dress found themselves featured on Turkish television.

The team's first career came to an end a few years later after several of the players got married. Now a new generation is ready to take up where the first team left off. The advertisement agency that hired Salvarspor for the chewing gum clip came across the team in a film posted on the internet. "We are ready to play in other films as well," Mr Solak said. He added his first priority was to raise money for his team. "We have not been able to buy good football shoes for some of our girls."

Lack of sponsors and funds is a problem for other female football teams in Turkey as well. Atasehir, a women's team in Istanbul, recently faced the prospect of having to dissolve its squad even though the club had just made it to the top women's league, because there was no money to pay for expenses such as trips to out-of-town matches. The team was saved when the local mayor pledged to support the team.

Although football is a national passion in Turkey and although the country's football federation estimates that there are 13 million young women in the country who may be interested in playing the sport, the official number of registered female players who play regularly is just 1,322. None of the three women's football leagues is professional. The federation says it is time to change that. "We do not accept any kind of discrimination in sport," Ersin Alankaya, the federation official in charge of strengthening women's football around the country, told a recent panel on the subject in the south-eastern city of Kahramanmaras. "Our girls play very well," Mr Alankaya was quoted as telling a similar meeting in the city of Sivas. "And they play more beautiful as well." One day, male football players may be afraid to play against a women's team, he predicted.

Mr Alankaya and other officials admit that Turkey is far behind in the development of women's football. Norway, a nation of just 4.5 million people, had 120,000 female football players, he told his audience in Sivas. One of the young players listening to Mr Alankaya, Gulnihal Uctas, told a local newspaper she started to look at life in a new way after she picked up football. "At the same time, we have been able to do away with the phrase that 'football is a men's sport,'" she said.

Women's football is gaining a foothold in several regions of the country. Even the province of Hakkari in Turkey's poor and socially conservative south-eastern corner bordering Iraq and Iran, has its first women's team. In a league match last weekend, the women of Hakkari beat a visiting team from Tarsus by a whopping 24-0. Hamdi Aslan, the coach of the national women's football team, also says things are looking up. "When we started four years ago, we only had 50 players" to choose from, he said according to the football federation's website. "Today we have a player reservoir of 700 to 800 people."

But Mr Aslan conceded that it will take time and patience until Turkey can compete with leading women's teams in the world. @Email:tseibert@thenational.ae