Photo credits: Fenerbahçe
Mariana Jaleca is a Portuguese footballer who currently plays for Fenerbahçe. At 24, she already has ample experience in international environments, such as the United States of America, Italy, and Finland. In this interview, the midfielder speaks about her childhood memories, the process of becoming a professional, evaluates her first months in Turkey, and analyzes the existing ecosystem of women’s football.
Mariana’s fondness for football began instantly in her childhood. “It was a passion born within me. I always remember swapping Barbie dolls for balls. When I was five years old, I joined a football club for the first time – Vitória FC. Nobody accepted me in any club since I was a girl. Once, my grandmother had a meeting with Vitória FC, and from there, I started to join the men’s football team.”
Women’s teams did not exist back then. I did not play competitively until I was 12 because it was not allowed, and then I finally went to a senior women’s football team.
“I remember having Luís Figo as a childhood idol, and I even saw him play for the Portuguese national team at Estádio do Bonfim”, she said.
Despite the unfavorable circumstances in the women’s football scene she faced in her home country, the midfielder never gave up on her dream of turning pro. “Up until the period of going to the United States of America, we did not have any professional football team [in Portugal]. Sporting CP’s women’s team was formed the year I left, for example. I never thought that would happen in Portugal because it was not a real thing at that time”.
In 2017, the 24-year-old player joined Saint Francis Red Flash – the University of St. Francis’ team – with a scholarship that allowed her to complete a degree in Psychology and Arts. “From a very young age, my parents always instilled in me the importance of doing both [studying and playing]. You never know when there might be an injury or something that makes it impossible for us to do what we love. I started realizing that doing both would be a little complicated in Portugal and then came the idea of going to the US. I went to a showcase in Lisbon with a Spanish company that presented my training and match videos to universities. In those three years, I learned to be a professional and what it means to work hard to achieve what we want”.
They have a completely different mentality from what I was used to. In Portugal, sometimes, coaches say «you are going to run those 100 meters and that is it». In the US, they ask you the same, but I had all my teammates saying «no, you are going to run 50 meters more because it is better for us».
In a single season – 2020-2021 –, Mariana represented three different clubs: Damaiense (Portugal), Orobica (Italy), and Aland United (Finland). These shifts reflect her relentless pursuit of projects capable of offering the finest conditions for improving her performance. “Damaiense was an asset in times of the COVID-19 pandemic. I managed to remain active, get back into European football and I am very grateful for that. However, there was a possibility to go to Italy, and I believed that would be a good step in my career. In Italy, I had the opportunity to make a living exclusively from football for the first time. Then came the opportunity to play in the Champions League [at Aland United] and I could not say no. Any player with the ambition I have would never reject the proposal”.
At Aland United, she fulfilled her dream of playing in the UEFA Champions League. “It is funny because the anthem has changed in that season. We were all waiting for that symbolic UEFA Champions League anthem, but having our own was something… I just felt that all my effort was rewarded in those 90 minutes. It was an indescribable feeling”.
Mariana has been in Turkey for approximately four months. Recently, Turkish women’s football has experienced remarkable growth with several renowned clubs entering the scene, such as Fenerbahçe, Besiktas, and Galatasaray. Her experience at the club based in Istanbul has been highly positive. “This is my first time in one of the most popular clubs in the world. The conditions they offer are fantastic. Everything is planned to the maximum detail in training, trips, hotels, meals, etc. They give us everything we can imagine. I am really happy at Fenerbahçe”.
“It is the first year of the three most successful Turkish clubs in the championship. I think we are doing a good job and that this is an important step for us in Turkey”, she added.
Turkish supporters are known worldwide for their fanaticism and devotion to their clubs, and it also occurs in women’s football. “We can see their support at the matches, on our way to the bus… Everyone loves and idolizes us. We see many little girls asking for photos, autographs and desiring to play football. The fans here are, in fact, the soul of the club.”
So far, the midfielder has not yet been called up to the Portugal National team by Francisco Neto, but her present focus is on Fenerbahçe’s defined objectives for the season.
Right now, I am concentrated on my club and the performances we have to do until we achieve our goals. The Portuguese national team part is a plus. Any Portuguese player wants to join the national team.
In her opinion, the inequalities between men’s and women’s football can only be with the support of all genders. “We – women – all come together and make things happen, but we also need to get more men on our side. I think we are still light years away from receiving a salary equal to men. Anyway, it has grown: there are more and more interested sponsors, stadiums full of fans, etc. In Turkey, fans want to know about women as well as men. This is being done step by step”, she concluded.