Emerging Sports Writer Program participant Sienna Nobile spoke with one of her heroes, footballer Gülcan Koca, reflecting on the athlete’s journey and their first encounter.
“People aren’t a fan of you because they dislike you. They’re a fan of you because they admire you.”
Humble is the perfect word to describe Turkish-Australian footballer Gülcan Koca. With 16 caps for the Turkish National Team, a Championship with W-League club Melbourne Victory and her recognition as Victory’s most “versatile player in the squad”, Gülcan is a player that changed the way I saw professional footballers. From a friendly personality that radiates from her, both on the pitch as a defender and on the sidelines at Victory A-League matches, to her genuine character that makes her fans feel like they are her friends.
Melbourne’s restrictions as a result of the pandemic meant that Gülcan and I could not meet in person. Instead, we connected via Zoom, which was convenient as Gülcan is currently on maternity leave. I sat at my desk with the noise of residential construction behind me, whilst Gülcan was with her four-month-old son in his playroom, chatting with me and simultaneously keeping her baby boy occupied.
Gülcan was born in Melbourne to Turkish parents. Reminiscing over her ability as a kid, she recalls how she “couldn’t juggle, couldn’t kick a ball and had no idea of anything about football. It was just the thought and the idea of doing something that my brother [was] doing.”
“My dad was involved in Dingley City Soccer Club, which is a Turkish club and they had a junior team,” Gülcan explained. “My brother joined and I was like, ‘okay, he’s joining so I want to join.’”
Gülcan was persistent, strong-minded in her pursuit of football, and despite her brother’s best efforts to quell that desire, she stuck to her guns and was signed to Melbourne Victory’s W-League team ahead of the 2010 season.
“It’s funny. Even at my wedding, in [my brother’s] speech, he said to everyone that he taught me everything I know.”
Gülcan ended up the only one of her siblings to play at a national level.
At the age of 19, Gülcan headed for Turkey to begin her training with the national team—something I could only dream of as my 19th birthday comes closer.
“I got contacted by the captain . . . [they] had seen that I played at Melbourne Victory and that I had the dual citizenship so they invited me to play, and at that age, playing for a senior women’s team is something you can’t pass up.”
“I had no idea that the terminologies were very different. So there, I did struggle a little bit. The only thing that they probably said in English is that they called me ‘kangaroo.’”
We laughed as Gülcan searched for her son’s dummy, which incidentally was in his mouth. This took me back to when I met her for the first time at a Victory match, which was the first time I witnessed her human side. My younger brother and I were hanging over the barrier at AAMI Park next to the dugout. I was in my Victory jersey and Gippsland FC spray jacket with my membership lanyard hanging around my neck. We were waving and yelling out Gülcan’s name—mispronouncing it which has led to my profuse apologies since—and when she noticed us, she pointed to herself as if to ask “who me?”.
The following home game for Victory, Gülcan remembered me and that recognition from her completely changed how I saw professional footballers. It is easy to forget that they are regular people when you see them on the pitch or on the TV. When you compare their play to yours. When you wish you could be in their position. I remember thinking to myself, “If I ever play for Victory like her, I want to be the same with my fans.” Four years later, although I no longer play, Gülcan has still left an impact on me, now as an emerging sportswriter in comparison to a wannabe future player.
A large part of being a professional athlete is having the opportunity to engage with your supporters, whether at matchdays, club events, or social media. Having an interaction with people that admire your skill and attributes as a player can have a great effect, as Gülcan had with me when I first met her back in 2017.
“As a professional athlete, you do have a responsibility to your fans,” Gülcan explains. “You’re fortunate to be in that position, to play the sport that you love. And there’s people that enjoy what you play, look up to you and want to be in your position.”
“So I believe that if there’s people that don’t engage with their fans, it’s a bit selfish.”
For some athletes, that impact on fans, on those younger players who do look up to you, that is just as important as winning Championships or winning the Julie Dolan Medal.
“I think that you always hope that’s going to happen. You always have that hope that the interaction is going to have a positive reaction.
“There’s people that I’ve met, like yourself, at Victory games or Victory events where they end up becoming a friend and they end up becoming someone that you know. I always look for certain people, I know where they sit and I make sure that I go and see them or go and say hi because you actually start wanting to see these people.”
As our interview came to a close, I asked Gülcan what the most memorable moment in her career was. After watching her on the pitch for so long, it was a question to which I longed for an answer.
“We made the semi-finals for the first time in the history of the club. This was when I was playing with, I like to say, a mediocre team. We were mostly Victorian players and we’re great within our leagues, but putting us next to other W-League teams, we probably weren’t.
“We had Mike Mulvey coaching, and something that resonates with me is there was a game where I didn’t play. I was on the bench and he told me and I said to him, whatever is best for the team. And he said, ‘what is best for the team is for you to be in the starting 11 and you want to be in the starting 11.’ He believed in every single player. He didn’t try and perfect our weaknesses. He utilized our strengths. And we made semi-finals.
“It was a team that no one would have ever thought would make the finals. And then the following year we won the grand final. That was a really memorable moment.”
Gülcan’s impact on my life has spread from my performance on the football field to my presence as an amateur sportswriter. Undoubtedly, she has impacted many other lives in the same way. As she mentioned, people are a fan of you because they admire you, and admiring Gülcan Koca is what has undeniably shaped me into the player and writer I am today.