Turkey set to begin FIFA Women's World Cup™ qualifiers
FIFA.com hears from team captain Didem Karagenc
She discusses the development of women's football in Turkey
"Where there's a will, there's a way." That famous old saying may as well be the motto of Turkish international Didem Karagenc, who has carved out her young career in the game despite multiple obstacles. There have been moments of doubt and weakness, even the temptation to leave the sport behind, but her willpower has always proved more robust, allowing her to live her dream of playing football.
Now clear headed and comfortably established, she is the captain of the Turkey women's team. And she is raring to slip on the armband once again, with her country due to begin qualifying for the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023™ on Thursday.
"When I started playing football, there were no women's teams," the Besiktas defender tells FIFA.com. "I could only play with the boys, and so I had to get myself accepted in the team. It wasn't easy, but I did it. I think I've written my story with passion."
Karagenc enjoyed her first kick of a ball with her cousin in a school garden. Born into a family of teachers, she tried out several different sports before opting definitively for football – the one that brought her the most joy. She then convinced her father to let her turn this school hobby into a genuine passion, and later an absolute priority.
"Thanks to the support of my father, the school accepted me being the only girl in the team, a bit like in Europe," recalls the 27-year-old, who joined her first club aged 11. "Everything started when a coach saw me score a great goal from a corner. He met with my parents and managed to persuade them."
Playing a so-called 'boy's game' is never easy for a woman living in a society caught between tradition and modernity. Although she received the backing of her parents, Karagenc also had to face the rest of her community.
"I went out and always played with the boys because there were no women's clubs, but it was frowned upon," she says. "People were constantly complaining to my parents: 'Do girls play football? Why haven't you stopped your daughter?'"
In spite of everything, she never gave up. Instead, she built experience at a number of clubs before joining current side Besiktas in 2015, rising through the ranks and eventually earning a place in the national set-up. Even at the highest level, however, not everything has been straightforward. "True, I've won several titles and worn the national team shirt over 100 times since the age of 15, but there have still been pitfalls and aggravations," she says.
"I'm captain now, which is both a huge responsibility and a great honour. To get there, I've had to confront all the prejudices that exist around women's football. It was difficult to put up with and I almost gave up, but the call from Besiktas gave me fresh hope."
The chance to play for the Istanbul giants has also allowed her to help the development of the women's game on home soil. "Women's football wasn't as popular then as it is now," she says, remembering her early years and looking up to Roberto Carlos. "Speaking modestly, I think I've become an example for young Turkish girls who want to follow the same path as me."
Karagenc believes much has changed since her own childhood. "In the last few years, projects have been launched to develop women's football in Turkey. Our federation has put in a lot of work, there has been financial investment too, the media are taking more and more interest, and the big clubs are starting to set up women's teams."
Indeed, Fenerbahce – one of Turkey's most popular outfits – created their own women's side earlier this month, a decision that will surely encourage others to follow suit. As for Karagenc, she has been amassing experience in several roles to help the game grow, having served as an analyst for the Turkish Football Federation (TFF) since 2015, while also pursuing a UEFA B coaching licence and learning the ropes of sports management.
Above all, though, she is focused on the national team's next mission: clinching a place at the 2023 World Cup.
"Qualifying isn't just a dream for us," she says, as Turkey prepare to face Portugal in a tough group featuring Germany, Serbia, Israel and Bulgaria.
"Turkey could really have their say. And if we don't make it, there'll be no frustration. We'll just aim to qualify in 2027! Turkey will always let their quality shine." There could be no better example of that than Karagenc herself.