Turkish Sports Clubs Aim to Level the Playing Field

Turkish Sports Clubs Aim to Level the Playing Field

By Patrick Keddie

Cici playing for Dudulluspor.
SourceErdem Göktürk


Because sports can mean winning in different ways. 

By Patrick Keddie

A smile on her face, 14-year-old Cici* recalls how her mother was initially against her playing soccer for Dudulluspor club’s girls’ team, which she joined in 2013. “She was telling me: ‘Girls don’t play soccer!’ But I pretended not to hear!” Her mother changed her mind once she realized soccer could offer her daughter opportunities that just weren’t available till now in Turkey.  

The Istanbul-based club wants to thrive at soccer, but its ultimate focus is elsewhere: keeping girls from a deprived community in education. Playing soccer earned Cici the necessary credits to gain a place at a sports high school, and she will likely become the first member of her family to go to university. “Soccer got me onto the right path,” she says.

Traditionally, it’s a different path that has often felt predestined for many youth in poorer sections of Turkish society. They drop out of school, and they may become vulnerable to domestic violence and drug abuse. They often have large families, and their children’s lives soon resemble theirs. Now, Dudulluspor and a growing number of social project sports clubs and organizations emerging across Turkey are trying to break this cycle through sport, helping vulnerable young people defy society’s expectations. 

None of these groups existed at the start of the decade. Since then, Zafer Spor has played a critical role supporting traumatized and deprived communities in the western city of Soma in the years after a 2014 mining disaster. Karaçay Gençlik Spor, which launched in 2011, is using soccer to help male teenagers stay away from drugs in southern Turkey’s Osmaniye. Other clubs, as well as leagues, clubs and academies are working with Syrian refugees in several cities. And more and more of social sports projects are focusing on young women.

We try to leverage sport to provide opportunities for disadvantaged groups.

Erdem Göktürk, president of Çekmeköy Defne Spor, a social project sports club 

The soccer platform Kızlar Sahada — Women on the Field — has worked with more than 5,000 girls and women over the past six years in tournaments, academies and leagues across Turkey. Malatya Women’s Sports Club has helped almost 50 girls to go to university since it was formed in 2012. Çekmeköy Defne Spor, started in 2017 by Dudulluspor board member Erdem Göktürk, runs soccer and handball teams for teenage girls in some of the most deprived and peripheral areas on the Asian side of Istanbul. Together, these platforms are showing Turkey – and its most vulnerable youth – a path to a future that didn’t appear to exist. 


“We try to leverage sport to provide opportunities for disadvantaged groups,” says Göktürk, Çekmeköy Defne Spor’s president. “So, the biggest disadvantaged group in my view in Turkey, and especially in the lower socioeconomic classes, are women.”

In Turkey’s mostly conservative society, girls get fewer opportunities than boys to play sports. To break that pattern, Çekmeköy Defne Spor is relying on girls themselves to act as agents of change. At the club, they get opportunities to be active and to socialize safely, boosting their confidence and self-esteem. The more talented athletes can gain places at sports high schools, and sporting licenses earn crucial credits for places at university.

“As soon as you create that dream, then the whole thing turns upside down. It’s basically a self-supporting system that continues,” says Göktürk. “For some girls who are very prone to falling out of the education system, that becomes a reason for them to stay in education.”

Cici and the coach of the under 15 turkish national team image courtesy of the tff

Cici celebrating with the coach of the Turkish under-17 national women’s team.

Source Turkish Football Federation

Making girls ambitious across different spheres of life is critical and playing soccer helps, says Melis Abacıoğlu Sezener, founder of the Kızlar Sahada platform. “It’s very empowering and transformative for these girls to be on the field.”

Turkey’s growing social project sports clubs and platforms vary in their aims and their criteria for selecting players and funding strategies, but they generally draw a clear distinction between themselves and regular sporting clubs, though they may compete in the same competitions. While social project clubs want to excel sportingly in order to gain more attention and funding, they prioritize their social aims.

At clubs like Dudulluspor and Matalya, the players can only play if they are pursuing an education and getting good grades. The clubs organize trips, run workshops to educate players and parents on their rights, and offer counseling and psychological support. They do not buy or transfer players like regular clubs, instead choosing only players from certain disadvantaged areas or particular cohorts.

Nevertheless, Göktürk says it’s important to stay cautious of claims by some sports clubs that they are conferring social advantages. He says sports clubs often automatically provide opportunities to young people, but that their social advantages are often passive or incidental, with sporting success their key driver. “You need to look at the actions and not just the words,” he says. Genuine social project sports clubs are also beset by challenges, including difficulties finding places to train and, often, a severe dearth of funding.

Sezener says that, overall, such sports projects are still nascent in Turkey, but the trend is growing.

That growth, Göktürk believes, may be partly because of increased access to funding — including from the EU — and a growth in online and social media that both draw attention to social issues and provide easier means of organizing and gaining support. Despite a legacy of authoritarianism, pockets of civil society are also growing, especially for apolitical projects that harness the power and popularity of sport.

For young beneficiaries like Cici, that emerging support can prove life-changing.

Dudulluspor is thriving in the country’s third tier of women’s soccer. Cici’s proudest moment was scoring for the under-17 Turkish women’s national team in Antalya, in December 2017. She has set her sights on becoming a physical education teacher. “I worked hard and I was successful,” she says. “I am going higher all the time.”

*This is a nickname she prefers to go by (pronounced ‘Jee-Jee’).