Coach Özgür Gözüacik earned the respect of her players – and the attention of the media – after breaking into one of the world's most male-dominated professions: professional soccer. Istanbul’s sole female coach, the 29-year-old yearns for a cham
ISTANBUL – Sometimes she just can't stand it. "When the guys aren't pulling their weight. I just want to scream with anger. But I don't," she says. Not usually, anyway. Özgür Gözüacik, the 29-year-old coach of an all-male, third-division Turkish soccer team, then goes on to tell about the time she did.
It was during halftime, when her team was losing 1-0 to a weak opponent. Gözüacik – who is known for being cool, calm and collected – stormed into the locker room and started roaring. "If I'd been holding a stick I would have let loose on all of them," she says. Gözüacik says that game (which ended in a 1-1 tie) is the only time she lost it.
Gözüacik says too that she's only ever cried once on the playing field. It was after a game, and she was talking to a reporter. Suddenly out of nowhere a ball slammed into her face. It really hurt, and tears started streaming down -- but she kept on talking.
The training area is squeezed between two city highways. Below is the working-class district of Kagithane. Istanbul's chic set rarely sets foot here. It's just past 9 a.m.: the big board flashes the temperature: 3° C. Gözüacik is sniffling with a cold. Many of her players are home with the flu. But she's taken some antibiotics and is getting on with it: "I can't let the players down," she says. Her husband, Gökhan, looks on from a sideline. "She's never missed a training session," he says. "If she did, everybody would say, ‘So what's new? Women can't hack it.""
"Better than the men"
This woman clearly can hack it. Istanbul has a population of 15 million, and 500 soccer teams. Only one -- Catalzeytinspor -- is coached by a woman. But just having the job isn't enough for Gözüacik. She wants to win. She's hungry for the big time. "We're targeting the championship," she says. "We're the favorite." Last season, they missed by a single goal, coming in second.
"She won't make that mistake again," says a man standing on a sideline. "If anybody can do it, she can."
The players who Gözüacik calls "the kids' include defender Burak Kocman, 18, and Ersin Cay, the 27-year-old team captain. "When I first told my parents we had a woman coach, my mother said a girl didn't have any business doing that," says Kocman. "Partly I think it was because of the violence. It used to be really crazy during games, fans beating each up all the time."
Cay admits he wasn't too thrilled when he heard the news they were getting a female coach, but after she started "I saw immediately that she was a pro."
"It's always the same thing," Kocman says. "When they hear you have a woman coach people give this look, like, what? A woman? And I always say: ‘She's better than the men. She's not full of herself, either.""
"Women work today," he adds. "Boys and girls date each other. It's not the old Turkey anymore."
Going pro at 16
Özgür Gözüacik – her first name means "free" – was born in October 1981 in Kastamonu, near the Black Sea. Her father is a teacher, and her mother runs two small stores. "In our family, my Dad was the emotional one; my mother was the one who took charge," says Gözüacik. "She would tell me, ‘Don't let men run your life.""
Her father took her to the soccer field, where he coached a team. When Gözüacik was 13, she signed up secretly to play for a girl's team. Her father was proud, but her mother would yell: "Always in your training gear, why can't you get dressed up sometimes like other girls instead of tracking half the mud in Kastamonu into the house!"
Gözüacik soon began training with the boys, and later received an offer from a first-tier women's team in Adana. She was 16. Her father sent her off on the 15-hour trip alone: "I have faith in you," he said. "And you need to have faith in yourself." Later, she went to Samsun, on the north coast of Turkey, where she got a coaching license and also played with the Samsun women's team becoming Turkish champion in 2001.
The girls Gözüacik went to school with all became teachers. "But I wanted to be a coach. And I wanted to coach men," she says. Gözüacik gets along better with men, she says. "They're more direct. Women are so complicated."
More direct? Well, not always. In 2004, the first team that hired her contacted her father first "as if they were asking for my hand." But the Catalzeytinspor board knocked on her door directly. "She has the qualifications. She has a UEFA license. So we wanted her," says former chairman Hasan Özbey. "Sure, some people expressed doubts about it. But Özgür's success has silenced them all."
A country of contradictions
Soccer tends to be a man's game pretty much worldwide. That is especially the case in a macho country like Turkey. How does she deal with it? Gözüacik shrugs: "They get to know me and they get over it." When she first started out, fans of other teams that lost against hers would yell: "Wimps! You even lose against a woman!" But those days are over, she says.
Still, Gözüacik believes Turkish men have a ways to go. Eventually, she says, "they'll learn that women are just as good as they are. And they're going to have to get used to seeing women on top in soccer too." Gözüacik says women need to stop lowering their eyes all the time -- and fathers should bring their daughters to soccer games. She's been lucky with her men, she says: a loving father, and now a wonderful husband who attends every one of her games.
Gözüacik believes that Turkey is getting ever freer, and that life for its women just keeps improving. She is aware that that doesn't apply to all women, and that the rapidly changing country is full of contradictions. Its ruling party is Islamist, but Turkey has more female bankers and professors than most Western countries. Still, fewer than one in four women works outside the home, and of the country's 3,000 mayors, only two dozen are women. On the sporting front, schools have only allowed girls to play soccer or to wrestle for two years now.
Gözüacik's position as the only woman among sweating, fighting, swearing men would have made her a media figure anyway, but she arguably gets even more attention because she's young, blonde and pretty. But she is anything but a showgirl, although she is the moderator of soccer talk show on Kanal T, a small cable channel. On her next show she's going to be covering the women's national team and highlighting the talented, just-discovered Kurdish player who attends boarding school and wears a headscarf.
In a café overlooking the Bosphorus, Gözüacik reviews the season that's just ended. They didn't win the championship; they came in third. "The players are afraid I'm going to leave. They are trying to get to me by saying things like: ‘We'll win next year! If you quit we're going to stage a sit-in in front of your house!""
She still has her dreams, but in 2012 she's going to do two things: get a UEFA "A" coaching license – and have a baby. Girl or boy, the child will definitely be a soccer player, she says. Husband Gökhan says their friends are already having a field day. "You'll see, it'll be a boy, and he'll want to be a ballerina!"
"Then he can dance on the soccer field," says coach Gözüacik. "Like Ronaldinho."
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