National team farewell for two Turkish legends
When the Women’s EHF EURO 2022 qualifiers finished in April, one of Turkey’s most successful campaigns in their history of participation came to an end. The final home game for Turkey was particularly special, as two distinguished careers were marked — those of national team stalwarts Yeliz Özel and Sevilay İmamoğlu Öcal, who both played more than two decades in the Turkey jersey.
A ceremony was held before the game against Serbia, with Özel’s 27 years in the national team — across all age categories — marked, alongside Sevilay’s 24 years.
The 27-year career of Yeliz Özel
Özel was only 15 years old when she wore the national team jersey for the first time, in a youth age category match against Spain played in Adana on 13 November 1995.
Starting her career at Ankara PTT Sports Club, Özel appeared in the European cup arena for the first time on 7 November 1998, playing against Frederikshavn F.I. At the age of 19, Özel had her first adventure outside Turkey as she transferred to Byåsen in Norway.
After one season in Norway, Özel returned to Turkey, playing for Ankara PTT, Anadolu University and Üsküdar Municipality — with whom she won the domestic league for the first time. And that was not the first national title she would claim, as more were to come abroad.
Özel transferred to Macedonian side Kometal Skopje and became national champion three times with the side, where she played until 2007. In 2005, she reached the final of the Champions League and was the fourth top scorer in the competition, with 61 goals. Then in 2006, Özel received significant individual recognition as she was nominated for the title of IHF World Player of the Year.
After her Macedonian adventure, Özel played mainly in Turkey, winning multiple domestic titles and the University World Championship, aside from two seasons in Romania (Oltchim). Alongside her club success, she won the silver medal at the Mediterranean Games in 2009.
“My primary goal is to be among the players who have played handball the longest”
“I am both happy and sad. I’m happy because it's nice to see young people coming from the bottom,” said Özel of the end of her national team career. “Since handball is our lifestyle and we have grown up with it from childhood to this age, it saddened me to know that it had to end. But all good things come to an end one day. Finishing at the top eased my sadness a little bit.”
Özel may be done with the national team, but she plans to continue on court for many years yet. “I have the energy to play handball for at least three or four years. My primary goal is to be among the players who have played handball the longest and to run for new successes. Later on, I want to take part in the national team as a coach or manager.”
“I never think of leaving handball. Handball is a way of life for me”
Sevilay İmamoğlu Öcal started her national team career in 2002, playing against Azerbaijan.
Öcal played for multiple clubs in Turkey throughout her career: Lüleburgaz Gençlik, Üsküdar Belediyespor, Kastamonu Gençlik, Havelsan, Çankaya Belediyesi, İzmir Büyükşehir Belediye, Antalya Muratpaşa Belediye and Bodrum Yalikavak. She won the Turkish championship with Üsküdar Belediye in 2003/04 and again with Muratpaşa Belediye in 2011/12. She was also part of the university national team that won the world title in 2008 and was one of the silver medallists at the 2009 Mediterranean Games.
The 2011/12 club season was a highly successful one for Öcal and her teammates at Muratpaşa, as they reached the final of the Challenge Cup. The team then contested the semi-finals of the EHF Cup in 2014/15 and Öcal made it to the same stage in the EHF European Cup with Yalikavak in the 2020/21 season.
“I said goodbye to the crescent-and-star jersey that I carried with the same excitement and pride as on the first day for about 25 years. It is very difficult for me to describe my feelings. I am sad, proud, happy and I believe that the next generation will carry the flag that they have inherited much further,” said Öcal.
“Endless thanks to our Federation President, Mr. Uğur Kılıç, who honored us by organising our farewell in front of such a magnificent audience, and to everyone who contributed. I plan to continue my handball career as a professional player for at least three or four more years, unless there is an injury. After that, I never think of leaving handball. Handball is a way of life for me.”