NEW YORK — Days before Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, a New York City room full of players, coaches and supporters of the Israel Football League — a group spanning several generations of Israeli sportsmen — looked forward to an upcoming signature event for American-style football in the Jewish state.
The Jan. 29 gathering marked the announcement that Jerusalem will host the 2014 International Federation of American Football Flag Football World Championships from Aug. 13 to 15. Thirty teams, composed of 500 athletes from some 20 countries, are slated to participate in the largest world championship sports competition ever to be held in Israel. The World Cup-style event will face political challenges; already Saudi Arabia has withdrawn from the competition, while a Turkish team is scheduled to participate.
American football in Israel began in 1989 with flag football games started by American immigrants looking for a taste of their homeland. Within 10 years, 35 IFL teams were in place. Israeli flag football league teams have had reasonable success in competition against international teams. At the moment, the Israeli men’s team is ranked fifth in the world, and the women’s team is ranked sixth.
In less than a quarter-century, “football has become an important strategic partner to the State of Israel,” said Ido Aharoni, consul general of Israel in New York.
Aharoni called sports “the No. 1 most effective bridge builder [that] establishes camaraderie and teaches responsibility, caring and protection — all the things Israel thrives on.” Sports, said Aharoni, are also a means to help “make sure the world understands that Israel is a real country, not just a place plagued with conflicts.”
“The partnership between the United States and Israel is unbreakable and is intensified through sports,” said Rabbi Michael Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
In 2005, pioneers who wanted to play American tackle football founded the IFL to introduce the game to Israel. Initially, players hit the field without proper equipment or an official governing body. But within two years, a league was organized under the umbrella of American Football in Israel (AFI). In 2007, when players began using regulated protective tackle equipment, only four teams — the Big Blue Jerusalem Lions, the Real Housing Haifa Underdogs, the Dancing Camel Hasharon Pioneers and the Mike’s Place Tel Aviv Sabres — competed. The Big Blue Jerusalem Lions won the first championship. By 2009, the league had expanded to seven teams; 11 teams now compete. The annual championship game is broadcast on Israeli television.
Eli Groner, now Israel’s minister for economics in North America, was the quarterback of the Big Blue Jerusalem Lions. Recalling the feelings of making aliyah at the age of 15, he said football was “a place to call home, a place where people can get integrated into Israeli society. The league is a great absorption center, a real story of integration.”
The IFL counts the family of Robert Kraft, owner of the NFL’s New England Patriots, among its major sponsors. The Krafts endowed the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, the league’s first permanent home.
Football and Israel are “two of [Robert Kraft’s] major loves,” and the IFL gives him an opportunity to have both, said AFI president Steve Leibowitz. American tackle football in Israel is “a great combination — a development of teamwork that started a dream, then added instruction and support and is powered by determination,” said Leibowitz.
Betzalel Friedman, commissioner of the IFL, grew up in Indianapolis and became involved with football after he completed his service in the Israel Defense Forces. During the last six years, he has witnessed a 300 percent growth in participation in American football in Israel.
“Jews, Muslims, Christians — everyone is a team player,” said Friedman.
Leibowitz anticipates that $400,000 in funding is needed to ready an Israeli team for competition in the European Federation of American Football in 2016. Steps are being taken to enhance the team’s personnel and equipment. Yonah Mishaan, who has coached Israel’s men’s and women’s flag football teams, has been hired to coach the Israeli national team for 2016.
“We expect to play well but need professional equipment and help encouraging development,” said Mishaan. University of Michigan quarterback Alex Swieca, who holds dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, is expected to be part of Israel’s national team in the 2016 European competition.
Leibowitz looks forward to establishing football centers in every Israeli city, similar in concept to the success of tennis throughout the country.
“There is an active and growing football community in Jerusalem,” said Leibowitz. “We hope to have centers from Nahariya to Be’er Sheva. We need to create a youth football league [and] high school and adult teams.”
While Israeli teams play a 60-yard, nine-on-nine game (as compared with the 100-yard, 11-on-11 American version), the IFL “must expand to a 100-yard field in order to be competitive in international play.”
Leibowitz anticipates that within a decade, 10,000 players will be involved in American football in Israel.
“What started as a part of bringing a piece of the U.S. to Israel has become much more than that,” said Groner.