American football touches down in Israel for first international game
A team from Maranatha Baptist Bible College will travel to Israel and face off against a newly formed national team from the Israel Football League, which is working hard to raise awareness of American football in soccer-crazed Israel.
Israel Hayom Staff
Tel Aviv Pioneer DB Ronny Moscona dives for an interception in the Israel Bowl V.
Photo credit: Zohar Rodberg
Yehuda Kirschenbaum rushes against Mishaan's Big Blue Lions.
Photo credit: Zohar Rodberg
To Israelis, "football" has long referred to a game played with a round black-and-white ball that one kicks into a goal. But the Israeli Football League, a growing collection of both Anglos and Israelis who are passionate about pigskin, has been working hard to change Israeli perceptions. Their efforts are paying off, and on May 17, the league will host its first international game of American tackle football.
The league comprises 10 teams and this spring has cobbled together its first national team, comprising the nation's top players. The national team will face off against Maranatha Baptist Bible College, a Christian university from rural Wisconsin, in a game that IFL leaders hope will bring some international publicity, as well as local respect, to the concept of American football in the Holy Land.
The national team players, like all IFL footballers, are not professional athletes. They are young men from every corner of the Israeli spectrum -- soldiers and professionals, Americans, Canadians, Israelis and even a healthy representation of Israeli Arabs. They purchase their own gear, trek twice a week to practice, and subject themselves to pummeling injuries for one reason only: sheer love of the game.
"I am slightly overwhelmed because of now having to balance football with everyday life, but grateful for the opportunity to play for my country," says Lewis Duker, a California native who plays for the Tel Aviv Pioneers and has also earned a spot on the IFL's national team.
Duker, who played football in California from elementary school through high school, has no illusions about football in Israel, a sport, he says, that still has plenty of room to grow. "Across the board, from top to bottom, [football in Israel] is at a low level, but like every new sport it takes time," he says. "There is amazing talent in this country that has yet to be discovered."
Some of that discovery has already begun. Bob Kraft, the New England patriots owner and one of the most successful Jewish businessmen in America, decided in 2007 to finance the entire league.
A Dec. 2010 New York Times article, "American football gains a following in Israel,"gave the league a significant international boost.
Since 2010, the Israel Bowl, the "Super Bowl" of the IFL, has been broadcast live on Israeli television, and there are currently two documentaries in the works about the league, its players, and its impact on Israeli sports mentality.
Now that the national team has been created, the league hopes to increase its international presence, going beyond the game against Maranatha and expanding into play against other American football teams throughout Europe.
The May 17 match-up, aside from pitting the Israeli team against an American one for the first time, will also present a new technical challenge: 11-on-11 play, as opposed to the eight-on-eight that is standard for IFL games.
"This is a group of guys who are working very hard to adjust to 11 men," says Yonah Mashaan, head coach of the national team and a regular player on the IFL Jerusalem team, the Lions. "The commitment level is pretty high. These guys are coming from all over the country, we have guys from Beersheba, Haifa, even Metulla, and it's twice a week. It's a lot of effort."
Asked about what the international matchup means for American football in Israel, Mashaan says, "It's very good for the organization. We're going to be playing a Division III team, which is definitely higher than our level right now. I think that once we get an idea of where we stand and what level we are, it will be a really good feeling.”
While there is no question the nascent national team will be facing some serious competition, Mashaan says it is still anyone's game. "Anyone going into a game thinking they don't have a chance of winning might as well stay home," he says. "A lot of it has to do with heart ... and you never know, maybe we'll surprise ourselves."