Mihir Bose: Racism is not the only problem in football, let us not forget sexism

There is no question we should raise questions about how the football authorities are dealing with or, more accurately, failing to tackle the issue of race. But let us not forget that while skin colour remains a huge problem being a woman in the game is no easy task as Ebru Koksal, Board member of Galatasaray, knows all too well.

She was on the panel I chaired at the recent International Football Arena in Zurich, the only woman with football experience at the conference. And what Koksal told me afterwards of her experiences both of being a woman, and a Turkish woman at that, should make all male football administrators hang their heads in shame. It proves that their claims that they are doing much to promote the women’s game is a myth. As for providing equal opportunities to capable women to play an active role in the administration of football, such a concept just does not exist.

So when I asked Koksal what it was like to be a woman in football she said frankly, “Well it’s been quite difficult. I’m a survivor. In over thirteen years that I’ve been in football, I’ve worked with eight Presidents and 11 Boards until I became a Board member as the Chief Executive Officer of Galatasaray. It’s been a difficult process. Every time a new election came around and there was a new President and a new Board, my role was always questioned.”

And she made it clear that, “Gender was questioned as well of course, whether I was sufficient [as a woman] for the position or not.”

Now Koksal is no ordinary lady. She has Galatasaray virtually in her blood, or as she put it “been a Galatasaray fan since I was born. My father was the captain of the Galatasaray basketball youth team. I had played water polo for the first woman’s team in Turkey, we were the first champions.” Koksal had also been a Galatasaray official voting club member for ten years before she got involved in running the club.

This came about in the sort of unplanned process that defines many of our lives. Having studied economics and international relations in the US, and been an investment banker in Morgan Stanley New York, she returned to Istanbul. It was love for a Turkish investment banker that made her return home and give up the dream of studying at Harvard.

Then, “working as a vice president at a private equity fund which invested in Galatasaray, I came over for six months [to the club] to help set up the business and follow the investment. The next thing I know I remained for 13 years”.

It helped, she says, that the President at that time, a former client, the sale of whose company Koksal had organised, “was very supportive. At first I didn’t want to stay longer because I thought investment banking is the thing to do. He was very visionary. He said ‘a woman in football, you have to stick it out, you have to stay. This is an industry that is going to grow very fast and give it a chance. You are going to like it’. And he was right.”

Koksal’s pride in what she accomplished is immense and she is not afraid to broadcast it. “I was responsible for the stadium project in Galatasaray, from the construction to the opening, management and the sale of the whole stadium. I did a wonderful job. I received the executive of the year award given by Stadium Business. And running for the executive board of the European Club Association was another courageous act.”

The courage lay in the fact that Koksal was the first woman to stand for election and says, “I had to go through an election against guys. When I put up my candidacy everybody thought ‘Ah, you know she is a woman.’ There were seven candidates for three seats and the other six were older, white, men. There was no other woman from any country and, certainly, not a Turkish woman.”

The ballot took place at a hotel in Geneva and there is no mistaking the satisfaction in Koksal’s voice as she recalls, “In the end I got the highest votes. When I won they were very surprised. They didn’t think I would win. When I entered the room at the hotel where the election was taking place everybody’s faces dropped. But Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, he was great. When he saw that I made it, he made me the vice chairwoman of the Institute of Relations Working Group. So he really tried to promote me while I was there. He put me in charge of some taskforces and he was very supportive.”

Koksal’s subsequent problem has been that there has been nobody like Rummenigge willing to help her. This was dramatically brought home when, in October 2011, she became general secretary of the Turkish Football Federation, at the invitation of the then president “I thought at the time it was a good idea but it didn’t turn out to be such a great idea. He resigned three months after I joined. I stayed for a while after he left but I don’t like working for people that I don’t have full respect for. Or people in whose leadership I don’t believe in.”

So was she subject to sexist comments in the Turkish FA?

“No comments about my sex. But it was very difficult to prove my capabilities. Every time I had to raise my hand and say ‘I can do it, why don’t you give this task to me’, and automatically people thought, ‘Okay, as a woman she can’t handle it.’ I didn’t leave the Federation on very good terms and it was a blow to my career. They told me they didn’t trust me.”

And opposition from Turkish men has meant that she never got nominated to influential international football positions, such as serving on important committees with decision making powers. “It’s very difficult to be nominated out of your club or your association for an international position, because you are a lone woman and there are 15 other guys who want to be there instead of you. It takes a visionary President to support you.”

The result of her fall out with the Turkish FA meant she has had to come back to Galatasaray as an advisor. “When I went [to the Turkish FA] the CEO position was taken and I said ‘okay now it’s time to switch to the board level and try my chances at the board level'”.

But for this mother of two, with a 14 year old son and a 13 year old daughter, who combines looking after her family with a career, men have not been in the only obstacles. Her sisters have not been all that helpful either.

“Madeleine Albright,” says Koksal, “has a famous saying apparently. ‘There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women’. I was just reading Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In, her experiences as the CEO of Facebook and about being a woman in the corporate world. She has this section on mentorship and she says that she has promised to help younger women to attain careers in technology. The reason, she says, and I use this quote a lot, is ‘there have been no other women in this industry who held out a hand for me’.”

Koksal’s voice drops as she says, “I had to do everything by myself and I didn’t get too much help from the women either. My mission now is to attract more women into the industry, because we are not good at advertising our achievements. The step taken by the football authorities for including women as part of the football industry’s decision making process is great. But there is so much more out there that we can be covering with talented and visionary women. We just need to make sure that we are attracting them and giving them the right opportunity.”

What worries Koksal is that all this talk of opening doors for women in football and having them on important committees is, “not too sincere. It’s more a political move. It’s not that they believe sincerely in the value added by having women on the board who can really contribute actively to the decision making process, to the strategy, to the operations.”

However being a woman is not the only problem Koksal has faced. There is the baggage of being Turkish in a world dominated by Europe that also matters. Koksal does not feel that there is “an anti-Turkey bias.” But given how the country is portrayed she feels “there is a bit of a bias against an Islamic nation.”

Then referring to Istanbul’s failure to win the 2020 Olympics she says, “The Olympics have never been held in an Islamic country before and in the end members of the International Olympic Committee, where a lot of lobbying had been done to explain our capabilities, did not accept our bid [they choose Tokyo].”

She feels Istanbul would have won, “if it was only based on our bid book or judged by how great was our financial commitment to deliver the facilities. I think people had their preconceived preconceptions.”

This preconception means that although Turkey is a secular country it is seen as Islamic and here Koksal sees Turkey’s problem as mirroring the problem women face in football. “I will make a very similar analogy. When I ask people ‘why don’t you have a female board member’, they say ‘Well we couldn’t find any’.”

Similarly, she says when the question is, ‘Why don’t you vote for Turkey?’ ‘Well’ they say, ‘you know, being Muslim, we’re not sure if you’re going to deliver to the highest standards.’ It’s just a preconception in people’s minds and it’s our job to break it.”

Koksal admits that the image of Turkey has suffered recently, “for many reasons, if you look on the sporting front, the match fixing and doping problem and, a little bit maybe, the violence in the stands in the matches”.

Koksal description of fan violence as “little bit” is an euphemism for the fact that away fans are now banned in Turkish domestic matches. But she argues, “I don’t think it’s a huge problem. It’s just one off events here and there. I mean this year we had an interrupted game with the fans jumping on to the pitch. This is not a good thing. So away fans are now not allowed. Until things settle down we thought this was the best precaution so as not to cause any problems.”

As for her own problems Koksal is determined not to give up and has a number of objectives in mind. “I want to change some things in this industry. I’m very unhappy about how football is going in Turkey. Galatasaray is trying to change the operating environment but we still have a lot of work to do. Being number seven in terms of revenues in Europe but being number 37 in terms of performance as the national team or as individual club teams shows resources are being used very badly and in a short term fashion”.

But could this not be said of her own club’s resources used to hire former Manchester City boss Roberto Mancini? Justifying his employment she says, “Yes it is a risk but he’s not getting paid much more than our former coach. This year he will be paid €3.5 million, next year €4.5 million, net guaranteed and then on top of it bonuses. But look at how much the revenues have grown by being in Champions League for two consecutive years. Our revenue last year was €139 million. This year it is going to be probably more like €150 million.”

Mancini was not the only potential manager Galatasaray considered. “We looked at three other candidates. Dirk Advocaat, and quite a few people wanted Marcello Lippi. He was introduced to us, but we didn’t think he had the same kind of ambitions that we did. And [Gheorghe] Hagi, of course, is the love of the Galatasaray fans. But we tried him before and he was not too successful and he’s got his own business now in Romania.”

Koksal is also keen for Turkish clubs to form their own breakaway Turkish super league separate from the Turkish Federation. This would be a radical move but says Koksal, “At least we will have the same structure as the top European Leagues like the Premier League or La Liga. They are the most competitive and the most attractive product of those countries. Their structures are each a little bit different but the main difference is the participants in that league are controlling their own future. Their future is not controlled by another entity which also needs to take care about youth development and the national teams.”

The English FA may want to rein in the Premier League but Koksal feels by forming a league separate to the Turkish FA, the Turkish clubs will increase their income. And she reminds me, “These five leagues in England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France account for almost half of the revenues generated by European football, 48% of €19.4 billion and in terms of revenue number six is Russia with about €630 million. Turkey is normally ranked number seven in European Leagues but as for revenues are concerned we generate less revenue than the Championship in England. “

For Koksal a separate League is essential to making Turkish clubs more successful in the Champions League. She accepts the Champions League has increased disparity in Europe football but argues, “You cannot get equality. The old romantic European Cup has gone. It’s like asking for the Ottoman Empire to come back. No, it’s not coming back.”

However, while this makes her a hard headed realist Koksal would, unlike many other football administrators, like FIFA and UEFA to be more accountable and transparent and is not surprised that they have made few moves to do so. “When I’m talking to people from other industries and they want to understand the governance structure, they say, ‘So okay, FIFA is the top organisation but who is auditing, checking the accounts, approving the FIFA accounts?’ The answer is the general assembly [FIFA Congress]. But the general assembly in the end actually has a financial relationship as well. They’re getting money and nobody wants to change this. I’ve attended so far a UEFA general assembly and I usually read the minutes. I have read the minutes of the past 10 years of some of the general assemblies. We never get any opposition in the general assemblies. This is because they’re getting all the money.”

Koksal would also like more disclosure on transfers, disclosure of the exact transfer fee and also the wages paid to players. “Since in Turkey,” she says, “the four top teams are publicly traded on the stock exchange, we have disclosure requirements. Every single transfer up to even the variable salaries of the players are disclosed. I would definitely support such disclosure for all European clubs.”

But on third party ownership, that FIFA and UEFA want to ban, Koksal says, “The only club that has used it in Turkey is Besiktas. Some of their players are owned by a third party. They have core investors in some of their players and it’s a great source of finance for Portuguese clubs, for some of the Eastern European clubs, to a lesser extent maybe clubs in Spain and South America. I’m not opposed to it too much. I’ve listened to several UEFA presentations. What if you pledge the players’ contract as an asset to a bank and borrow money? Third party ownership is not too different from that. At the end of the day players are assets and I can live with third party ownership. Rather than damning it, if you’re able to structure it well so that the third party is just a passive investor and just another source of funds, then it wouldn’t be bad.”

And for a woman who has had to fight so hard to succeed in football her views on the burqa are as fascinating. She had told me she did not believe there was a heaven but when I asked her how she felt about Muslim women wearing the burqa she refused to condemn those who wore it saying, “I feel that you shouldn’t look at shapes and symbols and figures. You should look at what’s inside that head. I have respect for all women who want to cover their heads, finish their education, and be elected to the Parliament because they also have great minds, even though they might have different religious aspirations. I have respect for any woman who’s pushing the boundaries and wanting to be where no other woman has aspired to be.”

As a Turkish woman in football she says she has felt, “I am like the first one climbing Everest and climbing it blind. It takes a lot of courage and I got hit many times, not physically, but discouraged, demotivated. I have thought of giving up, or sometimes reconsidering my path forward. The last one and a half years have been more going back and forth, not going forward.”

And her feelings were vividly revealed at the end of our panel discussion. I had asked our panellist what they thought the next fifteen years would bring? Andrea Agnelli, President of Juventus, had said he hoped Juventus would win the Champions League. Koksal listening to him thought of saying in fifteen years “I will be a President.”

But then she thought, “President of what? I don’t know whether it’s Galatasaray or Turkish Football Federation or UEFA or FIFA.” So while she still has “aspirations”, and has fulfilled some of them, she is aware that she is far from the summit of Everest. And given how hard the road has been for her, despite her background and education, one can only imagine how much harder it is for other women who want to play a role in football.

Mihir Bose was the first sports editor of the BBC. He has worked for various media outlets and launched the Inside Sport column for the Daily Telegraph. Now a freelance journalist he has written 28 books. His latest book: Game Changer: How the English Premier League Came to Dominate the World was published by Marshall Cavendish for £14.99. Follow Mihir on twitter @mihirbose