ISTANBUL — As the volleyball game neared its end, thousands of fans watching on giant screens in an Istanbul park rose to their feet and fell silent. The ball soared, a Turkish player set it up near the net, and her teammate spiked it. Her Italian opponents blocked the shot but knocked the ball out of bounds, handing victory to the Turks and causing the crowd to erupt into chants of “Turkey! Turkey! Turkey!”
The nail-biter victory on Friday by Turkey’s national women’s volleyball team in the Women’s European Volleyball Championship was the most recent conquest by the country’s most successful major sports team, a record that has turned it into a rare source of national pride that holds appeal across the country’s social divides.
While some ultraconservatives have attacked the women as an affront to Islamic values, their fans laud them as paragons of female empowerment in a country where many women feel they have yet to achieve social equality. And the team’s successes are a welcome bright spot for Turks struggling with sky-high inflation, political polarization and a slow recovery from devastating earthquakes in February that killed more than 50,000 people.
Affectionately referred to as “the Sultans of the Net,” the team won the Volleyball Nations League championship in July in Arlington, Texas, and became the world’s top rated women’s national team, according to FIVB, the sport’s international governing body.
On Sunday, the Turkish team faced Serbia in the final match of the European championship in Brussels — and won 3-2.
At home, the team’s games are aired live by the state broadcaster and its players exude star power. Legions of followers on social media celebrate their accomplishments, track their frequent hair-color changes and speculate about their romantic entanglements.
Corporate sponsorships and state support have flowed in. In 2021, when Turkey granted citizenship to Cuban-born player Melissa Vargas, she received her new Turkish ID card from none other than President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“They are fighters,” said Ceren Duyan, a biologist at a biotech company who watched Friday’s game in the park. “When we see women do good things in sports or anywhere else, we see that we too can be powerful.”
The volleyballers’ rise comes amid an international reckoning with how female athletes are treated compared with their male counterparts. Last month, the head of the Spanish soccer federation was suspended after giving a female player an unwanted kiss on the lips. In July, the BBC apologized after one of its reporters asked the captain of the Moroccan national women’s soccer team if any of its players were gay.
Turkey’s team has largely avoided such controversies, although the players’ personal styles have linked them to some of Turkey’s deepest divisions.
While its people are predominantly Muslim, Turkey was founded in 1923 by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, its first president, as a secular state. Much of Turkish politics revolves around struggles between those who treasure the country’s secular legacy and those pressing to expand Islam’s role in public life. The latter camp includes Erdogan, Turkey’s predominant politician for two decades.
The players are clearly in the former camp.
They do not cover their hair or wear clothing that conceals their bodies, as most devout Muslim women do. Instead, they appear in the standard uniform of shorts and tank tops, and some sport tattoos. Vargas, the team’s top scorer, has recently appeared on court with her hair dyed electric blue or bleached blond, with a blue lightning bolt over her ear.
After a victory on Wednesday against Poland, one player, Zehra Gunes, told Turkish reporters that the team was advancing Ataturk’s vision for Turkey.
“As Turkish women, we try to be role models for future generations by holding a light on the path that Ataturk showed,” she said.
Another star player, Ebrar Karakurt, received floods of hateful and homophobic messages after posting photographs of herself on social media in affectionate poses with other women, and an Islamist newspaper called her “a national shame.”
In 2021, when the team was competing in the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, a prominent preacher sharply criticized the team for not adhering to his conception of how a Muslim woman should behave.
“Girl of Islam! You are not the sultan of the courts; you are the sultan of faith, virtue, chastity and decency,” the preacher, Ihsan Senocak, wrote on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
A spokesperson for Turkey’s volleyball federation eventually responded to the hubbub, praising Karakurt for having the “the spirit of a fighter to represent her country.”
“Everyone’s private life concerns them only,” the spokesperson said. “All the rest is hokum.”
Karakurt has recently struck back at her critics in her own way.
An X user named Abdulhamid responded to one of her posts, saying, “As the Muslim Turkish nation, we continue to put up with you.”
After Friday’s victory, Karakurt posted a photograph of herself holding a sign that read, “Cut the crap, Abdulhamid.”
The team’s successes resonate because Turkey has long seen sports as a way to assert itself globally.
“It was always the motive of Turkish sports to be successful in international encounters to prove that we are legitimate — as powerful, as successful, equals to our Western peers,” said Daghan Irak, a senior lecturer in media communication at the University of Huddersfield in Britain. “It is a very important part of our society’s psyche in terms of sports.”
Erdogan and his government may not appreciate everything about the team’s public profile, Irak said, but the president most likely appreciates their inspirational value.
“Obviously, Erdogan is more interested in the national pride this team generates than the lifestyle questions,” Irak said.
Erdogan, an avid soccer player in his younger years, has not attended any of the team’s games. But he did call Eda Erdem, the team’s captain, after its first game in the Tokyo Olympics to say he had been watching.
“You made us sentimental, you made us teary,” Erdogan said, passing his greetings “to all the girls.”
After the team won a tournament this summer, an opposition lawmaker, Gulcan Kis, filed an inquiry to the Parliament asking why Erdogan’s sports minister had not attended any games and suggested it was to avoid angering conservatives.
“Is the targeting of the national women’s volleyball team by religious scholars the reason for your absence from the final game?” Kis asked.
But the squabbles have not hurt the popularity of women’s volleyball, or the vast infrastructure supporting it. The national women’s league is hugely competitive and rich in sponsorships. And the Education Ministry runs a “Sultans of Tomorrow” program to introduce the game to girls in provincial cities.
The success of the national team has attracted a new generation of girls to the game, said Neslihan Demir, who retired from the team in 2017.
“All the little girls in Turkey want to play volleyball now since they are watching their big sisters as role models,” she said.
The players’ broad social acceptance has encouraged parents to let their daughters play, too, she said.
Demir recalled meeting a family who asked her whether their 9-year-old daughter could become a Sultan of the Net.
“Start at once,” she told them.