The Israeli men's and women's national flag football teams head to Belfast, Northern Ireland, this week with a realistic chance of bringing home European Championship medals.
Both local clubs are highly rated heading into the internationally-recognized European Federation of American Football (EFAF) event. In June, the Israeli women established themselves as contenders after finishing first at the Big Bowl in Waldorf, Germany. At the same tournament, the largest of its kind in Europe, the men finished 4th out of 26 teams, and if not for questionable refereeing, could have easily been in the medals.
The three-day Euro Championships kick off on Friday, with the medal round played on Sunday. It's a very tough draw for the Israeli women, who face Sweden, France, Germany, Finland and Austria. At last year's World Championships in Canada, Israel lost to France and defeated Austria as they finished 5th out of seven teams. Israel has never defeated the French or Finnish national teams, but has bettered Sweden, Germany and Austria.
Coach Yonah Mishaan is upbeat about the team's chances to finish in the top three.
"We have the talent and the conditioning to compete on the very highest European level," said Mishaan, adding, "The speed of the French and the athleticism of the Finns will be a challenge."
The women's squad is led by quarterback Shana Sprung and halfback Yael Freedman.
The Israeli men's program has been a rebuilding project of sorts for captain and quarterback Kenny Zwiebel. Most of the players are young, so they are sure to have fresh legs.
The men will meet France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria in the group stage. They have also never beaten the French, and lost to Italy at last year's worlds. The Swiss and Austrian teams are less experienced and should prove less of a challenge.
The men's tournament favorite is Denmark who is ranked 2nd in the world, behind Canada. Leading players for Israel, who is coached on the defensive side by innovative tactician Yossi Fuchs, include veterans Akiva Rindenow, Dvir Weinberg and Joey Cohen.
AFI president Steve Leibowitz and injured national team player Ahuva Odenheimer will attend the tournament as referees.
As usual, the sponsor of the women's team is Myra Kraft, the wife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The men's team sponsors are businessmen/philanthropists Hart Hasten and Guma Aguiar, also hailed recently as the "savior" of local sports institutions Betar Jerusalem, in soccer, and Hapoel Jerusalem, on the basketball court.