As the United States geared up for Super Bowl Sunday, leaders from Israel’s American football community arrived in New York to drum up support for the iconic sport in the Holy Land.
Their goal? To raise $400,000 to fund training facilities and the hiring of new coaches needed for the formation of an Israeli national tackle football team.
“We decided to do it at this time because of the Super Bowl, because we thought there would be a great buzz about football, and we wanted to interest American Jews,” Steve Leibowitz, President of American Football in Israel told The Algemeiner in an interview.
“It will take two years to prepare our team for its first international match,” he said. First “we will be competing against European sides and then we hope to advance.”
Once formed, Leibowitz said, Team Israel will need to start right from the bottom and make its way from there. “We will start at level C and eventually we work our way up and play against some of the best teams in Europe, and eventually the world, once we get to be good enough.”
So far the venture has attracted some big names. Business magnate and owner of the New England Patriots, Robert Kraft, has long been a backer of football in Israel and paid for the construction of a Jerusalem stadium which was named for the Kraft family. At an intimate gathering at his office on Friday morning, hedge fund billionaire Henry Swieca urged attendees to get behind the project. Besides Kraft, other Jewish team owners have also shown interest, although they are not yet ready to publicize their involvement, Leibowitz said.
American Football’s journey in Israel began in 1989 when Leibowitz decided to create a touch football league in Jerusalem. Launched with just 8 teams, there are now 5 leagues in both flag and tackle football including a women’s league and a high school league with 15 teams each and a men’s league with 40 teams. The tackle football league now has 11 teams.
American football in Israel is recognized as the country’s official football administration by the Ministry of Culture and Sport and hosts an annual Israel Bowl which is aired on Israeli TV.
In flag football the country is already quite advanced. Its women’s team ranks sixth worldwide, and its men rank fifth. “We have been competing in international competition on a world and a European level for about a dozen years,” Leibowitz said.
Later this year, Israel will play host to the Senior World Championships for flag football in Jerusalem in what Leibowitz said will be “the biggest international championship ever held in Israel in any sport.”
“Teams from about 20 different countries will be coming to our championship,” which will run from August 13th to the 15th. “It will be at venues all over Jerusalem. Kraft [stadium] will be the host venue and we will have activities in the evening, it will be an Olympic Village type atmosphere,” Leibowitz said.
It took great effort for Israel to be awarded the right to host, and Israeli football will face some of the same Arab boycott challenges that other Israeli sports have faced in the international arena. Kuwait, a member of the International Football Association, will not be attending. Turkey however, will attend.
Within Israel however, football has been a uniting factor. In 2011, David Hartstein, an Austin, Texas-based documentary filmmaker captured footage of the league in action, showing Arab Christian, Arab Muslim and Jewish players of all stripes playing together, displaying a common love of the game.
“I hate this settler,” one Arab player says to his Israeli coach, in a scene caught on camera. “It’s true, I stole his land,” the Israeli responds. The men both laugh, and then head back to playing the game.
It was the explosion of flag football’s popularity in Israel that led Leibowitz to conclude that the country was ready for the next level.
“Now we feel we have players that have been playing the game for a number of years,” he said. The decision to field the international team was made a year ago, and Israel National Team Coach, Yonah Mishaan, was hired three months ago.
“I would call it a passion, I have been doing it for 25 years,” Leibowitz said, speaking to The Algemeiner just minutes before NFL Super Bowl XLVIII was set to start. “When the game begins I am a different person.”