Football history is about to be made. On Thursday evening, May 17, a gridiron war will take place between Israel and the US. Strategies have been devised, combatants have been training and, surely, a few secret plans for emergency situations are in leaders’ back pockets.
Following five years of preparation, organization and the sacrifice of blood, sweat, broken bones and – sometimes – tears, the Israel National Football Team will field the nation’s first 11-man team and face off against Maranatha Baptist Bible College at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Baptist Village playing field just outside of Petah Tikvah.
Starting with only four teams in 2007, the Israel Football League (now the Kraft Family IFL) introduced tackle football to the Israeli public via American Football in Israel (AFI). The league, which plays an eight-man game, was an on-the-field experiment and the realization of years of longing on the part of pigskin-fanatic Americans who were raised on football Sundays, tailgate parties and Friday night lights and native Israelis who, until then, could only dream of playing the sport. IFL yearly expansion has been the norm and last season the league fielded 10 teams representing different parts of the country, from Beersheba to Jerusalem to Haifa and Nahariya. The players are mostly native-born Israelis and include Jews and Arabs, religious and secular, left to right, PhDs and blue-collar workers — a true cross-section of Israeli society.
Part of that cross-section will be represented on the field Thursday. Steve Leibowitz, AFI Chairman, described the process of building one of the world’s most challenging sports in Israel as “a grass-roots miracle.” Beginning with “some guys in Haifa and Tel Aviv playing in a park,” the effort has been “ground-up” with players purchasing their own equipment and minimal government funding. “My belief is you take it step-by-step,” Leibowitz said. “We started from zero.”
The process of moving from an established 10-team league to international competition was not rushed. “What we’re trying to do with this game – to test the waters – is to see how we do against a smaller Division III team with a losing record. What are our chances? I don’t know. I imagine they will be the favorites.”
That’s not to say there’s no hope for the Israeli team. “I think we’ll be competitive,” Leibowitz said, “and I think this can set a precedent for taking us into international competition one game at a time where we bring our competitors to Israel to test our improvement.”
National team head coach Yonah Mishaan spoke to the significance of the game. “This is a great opportunity for the IFL and tackle football to get a feeling of where we’re holding level-wise and based on what we see from a DIII team.”
Simply putting the team together presented a number of difficulties. Referring to himself as a “figurehead,” Mishaan stressed the sacrifices and commitment of the all-volunteer coaching staff, brought in from all over the IFL, saying, “Those are the guys who came out and put together the game plan.”
Mishaan also noted the commitment of players, most of whom have full-time jobs and many of whom have families, with all commiting to practices and commuting cross-country at their own expense. With gasoline in Israel around $8 a gallon those practices can become very expensive for individual players, but they’re happy to be part of the team, he said.
Defensive player Gai Van-straten, who proudly chose 48 as his number, remarked, “After five years of playing we reached another peak and I’m very proud and happy to keep this dream of football in Israel going.”
Offensive coordinator Avigdor Yonah, who made aliya in 2010, was a coach for 22 years in the US at big Texas 5A high schools. “It’s a chance to showcase American football that we play in Israel,” he said. “It’s our chance to come out and show the world what we can do.”
The challenges haven’t affected the optimistic take on the game. “Regardless of what happens,” Mishaan said, “win or lose, this shouldn’t make any difference of where we’re going. We’re in a win-win. We were able to organize a good game plan and a good-sized team in order to compete and represent Israel in this game.”
Leibowitz, who met with Maranatha players Monday night, added that they’re excited and humbled to be taking part in the game. “They feel honored to be part of this historical moment,” he said.
The game is predicted to continue the sport’s momentum throughout the country. Ten teams are expected to take part in next year’s high school league and “high school students are organizing themselves and then coming to us for help,” Leibowitz said. With each player’s equipment being purchased by the player or his family at a cost of around NIS 2,000 ($540) and with a lack of proper fields, challenges continue to present themselves.
IFL commissioner Uriel Sturm noted the importance of the younger league. “Of course, our now 10-team high school league has also been a huge focus over the last two years and we are beginning to see hundreds of young Israeli athletes learning the fundamentals of football and developing a passion for the sport. This gives us even more motivation and a clear vision of the next generation of football in this country.”
Unlike many other sports in Israel, football is not a recipient of significant government funding. Taking a national tackle team overseas would cost the AFI about $100,000 per trip, and a new 100-yard stadium would run around $1,000,000. These numbers are not unreasonable or unattainable, but the sport is in need of support. Enter Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots. Kraft supports the IFL and is now supporting the high school league. But more help is needed.
Leibowitz elaborated, “If we raise a million dollars we could build another field. Ten percent of that would go to one [overseas] trip.” Mishaan agreed. “A company or private person needs to look at this and say ‘I want to be the man or woman who takes a national team and represents Israel.’”
The sport is expected to continue growing. “The game of football speaks for itself,” Leibowitz said. “It captures the imagination of a certain percentage of the sports-loving public [in Israel].” He believes the sport simply fits Israel’s culture and mentality. “Most of our players [on the national team] are Israeli-born. I imagine it will be mostly Hebrew spoken in the huddle,” he said. “I think that guys, as they’re beginning to think about the army – there’s something about teamwork, working together to develop strategy. Most of the army is about working together as a staff, following instructions for the better good of your staff. You’re only as good as your team. People like the book of plays, the strategic aspect of it, and a growing number of Israelis like the physical challenge of it. Every play you have to gather as much strength as you can. If you do something wrong the play is likely to fail for the entire team.”
Sturm also spoke to the sport’s attraction in Israel. “I think Israelis, in general — as dangerous as generalities may be — have a tactical, aggressive, disciplined, familial mentality. Maybe it is rooted in the fact that we are a military nation, or maybe going back to more historical reasons. However, all of these ideas play well within tackle football.”
Leibowitz hopes that within a decade Israel will have made a mark on the US college scene, contributing players and perhaps seeing one get a chance to play in the NFL. “Tal Brody,” Leibowitz said in reference to the American-Israeli basketball legend, “the other night was talking about how basketball games, when he first made aliya, would get rained out because there were no arenas. Things came a long way and now there’s an Israeli star in the NBA. It’s just a matter of time and luck to get a shot at professional football.”
Football’s implications for the country are great, Leibowitz said. “Israel is a society that is not only dominated by security and peace-related issues. It’s also day-to-day things. Football is yet another accomplishment towards becoming another normal country.”
The author played linebacker and fullback for the Jerusalem Big Blue Lions for four years and was part of the Israel Bowl I championship Lions team.