ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 147

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'From the bikinis to the beach, no wonder Israelis love it'

Israel’s answer to pickleball, footvolley is kicking up a stir on Tel Aviv’s beaches

Since the Brazilian import hit the Holy Land in 2003, sabras spending days on the sun-drenched coast have jumped at the sporting phenomenon, which now has a male and female league

  • Sergio Leandro, left, and Pablos Santos simultaneously perform the Shark Attack and Shark Block, July 29, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
    Sergio Leandro, left, and Pablos Santos simultaneously perform the Shark Attack and Shark Block, July 29, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
  • Illy Levy receives the ball with her chest at the final game of the footvolley Womens League, August 13, 2023, at Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
    Illy Levy receives the ball with her chest at the final game of the footvolley Womens League, August 13, 2023, at Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
  • Maor Haas sends the ball over the net with a header at the footvolley Final Four Championship game, August 5, 2023, Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)

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    Maor Haas sends the ball over the net with a header at the footvolley Final Four Championship game, August 5, 2023, Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten) .
  • The audience at the Final Four footvolley game on August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
    The audience at the Final Four footvolley game on August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
  • Maor Haas celebrates after scoring a point at the footvolley Final Four League Championship on August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
    Maor Haas celebrates after scoring a point at the footvolley Final Four League Championship on August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
  • Pablo Santos prays after scoring a point in footvolley, July 29, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
    Pablo Santos prays after scoring a point in footvolley, July 29, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
  • Ron Ben Ishai gives a heart to the crowd after their cheers at his impressive point at the footvolley Final Four League Championship, August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
    Ron Ben Ishai gives a heart to the crowd after their cheers at his impressive point at the footvolley Final Four League Championship, August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)

Walk by one of Tel Aviv’s numerous beaches on any given weekend and you’re likely to find it filled with young athletes playing what appears at some moments to be volleyball, and at others, soccer.

The game is called footvolley, and whether it’s slides, head-butts, or impressive bicycle kicks, players will do whatever it takes to get the ball over the net for the point. All the acrobatics may lend to a certain circus-like atmosphere, but don’t be fooled — footvolley’s influence on Tel Aviv’s young people goes far beyond mere entertainment.

“Footvolley has become the soul of Tel Aviv,” says Marjorie Finguermann, half of the female footvolley pair ranked number one in Israel and third in Europe.

Tel Aviv’s central Trumpeldor Beach is a hub for the activity, and, between rounds of flirting, can be seen gathering in circles to play “keep-it-up,” and local shops frequently sell out of the “mikasa,” the sport’s official ball.

On Saturdays, the Yaaz League — Israel’s national footvolley league — drew an average of 2,000 spectators to its summer tournament, with several hundred more streaming it online. Many enthusiasts gathered to cheer for their personal trainers, some of whom have become household names in Tel Aviv.

“The most exciting thing about it is to look across and see hundreds of people sitting in 35-degree heat [95 degrees Fahrenheit] in the bright sun, during Israel’s two hottest months, to watch the game,” says Tomer Raifman, CEO of Yaaz Entrepreneurship and Construction, the league’s sponsor.

A fusion of soccer’s power with volleyball’s grace, the sport was created in 1965 in Brazil and called futevolei in Portuguese. It arrived in Israel in 2003 when two Brazilians taught a group of Israeli soccer enthusiasts the rules at Tel Aviv’s Gordon Beach. The game is played across a beach net with two players on each side. Teams are permitted to pass the ball to each other using anything but their hands up to three times before sending it over the net.

Oren Tzuberry performs the Shark Attack at the footvolley Final Four League Championship, August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)

Though called “footvolley” around the world, Israelis couldn’t help putting their own spin on the moniker, and the sport’s Hebrew name “fuccivollei” was all but cemented after the Corona Fucci Vollei Tournament of 2008.

Today, the driving force behind the sport’s growth is the Israeli Footvolley Association, a volunteer organization established in 2016 and run by former players. The male league oversees the yearly summer tournament featuring the top teams in Israel that compete in a three-league division format. To elevate the level of competition, first-tier players are allowed to sponsor a Brazilian player as their teammate. The Israeli players take responsibility for their flights, food, shelter and training sites.

These athletes spend their off-seasons running footvolley schools along the beaches of Israel, passing on their knowledge to the next generation and helping expand the league. The schools offer practices each morning and night while hosting friendly tournaments for their participants every few months.

Blessed with beautiful beaches and nearly year-round sunny days, Israel stands as an ideal setting for this cultural phenomenon. The country’s proclivity for remote work also lends itself to the sport, and players regularly juggle work calls between footvolley games throughout the week.

Illy Levy receives the ball with her chest at the final game of the footvolley Women’s League, August 13, 2023, at Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)

In a city where great importance is placed on maintaining physical fitness, footvolley is an ideal way to stay in shape. Athletes keep in prime physical condition while perfecting their balance, endurance, and reflexes. Alongside weight-room workouts, they engage in beach sprints and practice pilates or yoga to ensure flexibility. Tel Aviv, renowned for its attractive population, blends this allure with footvolley.

“It’s a sport where you can wear a bikini and be on the beach; it’s no wonder Israelis love it,” says Illy Levvy, the other half of the top-ranked female footvolley pair in Israel.

Levvy and Finguermann have emerged against the backdrop of female athletes and leagues around the world advocating for equal recognition in sports. The pair, a couple, have not only become the best-ranked female duo in Israel — they’ve also launched Futilina, the first female-only league and school in Israel. Their shared passion for footvolley brought them together and continues to strengthen their relationship.

“Communication is the key to our relationship and success, both on and off the court. We excel by understanding and playing to each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses,” says Levvy.

Participating in European Footvolley League tournaments, Levvy and Fingermann encountered fellow female athletes from around the world who, like them, had experienced sexism in their home countries. This emphasized the need for a concerted effort to champion women within the sport. Tel Aviv’s shortage of nets and indoor facilities, coupled with the unequal progress of the men’s league, puts women players at a disadvantage.

“Futilina is here to change the perception that women don’t belong on the court,” says Finguermann.

Maor Haas sends the ball over the net with a header at the footvolley Final Four Championship game, August 5, 2023, Frishman Beach, Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)
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The rise of footvolley bears a striking resemblance to the pickleball trend overtaking the United States. Both sports have successfully captured the attention of a wide range of age groups, largely thanks to their low-impact nature.

For Tel Aviv’s young, many of whom spent some of their formative years in quarantines and lockdowns, footvolley provides an avenue to forge new friendships while enjoying the outdoors — experiences missed during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Israelis, known for their candid discussions about politics, find themselves exhausted from the divisiveness currently plaguing the country. Footvolley offers a space to leave these debates behind and simply enjoy the game.

Footvolley has also become a source of human connection for a generation used to looking down at their phones rather than up at the world around them.

Maor Haas and Ron Ben Ishai, the top-ranked pair in the Yaaz Footvolley League, celebrate a point, August 5, 2023, at Frishman Beach in Tel Aviv. (Chaim Weingarten)

“I always knew the sport would be successful here because the beach of Tel Aviv is a critical part of the city’s identity,” says Oshri Cohen, one of the four soccer enthusiasts who helped bring the sport to the city. “For many, the beach-based community fostered by footvolley acts as a haven for those who have struggled to be accepted in conventional spaces, giving them the chance to redefine their identities.”

The sport teaches life lessons that extend far beyond the beach, says Gal Levi, a former player and the Israeli Footvolley Association’s ambassador to Europe.

“It teaches you to take responsibility, to apologize when needed, to control your anger. It teaches you to take things in and let them go,” Levi says.

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