Courageous AFI women return with silver

Men's flag football team finish fifth at Flag Oceane in France.

AFI womens flag football (photo credit: AFI)
AFI womens flag football
(photo credit: AFI)
Israel's national women's flag football team came up just short defending its Flag Oceane title last weekend at Le Havre, France, while the men's team barely missed out on the semifinals in the highest bracket. The Israeli women, who won the 2005 championship at Europe's largest and most prestigious flag football tournament, appeared headed for the gold after dominating their Canadian and French opposition in their six opening round games, all played on Sunday due to Shabbat observance. In a driving rainstorm that lasted all day, the Israelis earned the No. 1 playoff seed with a combined score of 107-19 in those six games. The top seeds easily defeated fourth-place finisher Pygargues from Trois, France, 18-0, in the semifinals. The final against the Quebec Steelers, a team considered one of the finest in North America, began just 30 minutes after the end of the semifinal. Playing in front of approximately 1,000 mostly hostile spectators, Israel fell 19-6. The men's team started slowly, losing its first three games to three national champion clubs. The blue-and-white lost their first two games by the same score, 35-20, first to Mammoth of Denmark, and then to France's Pygargues. The defense continued to falter in the third match as Israel lost to Italy's Cleavers 47-36. The defense finally began to jell in their fourth match, as Israel recorded its first victory in the competition, defeating Banditi Ferrara of Italy, 25-19. The Israelis rolled to their second straight victory with a hard-fought win over the German champion Lizzards, 25-13. Israel then faced Kircaldy Bulls, the Scotland national champions, with a chance to reach the semifinals. The blue-and-white came from behind to take the lead with two touchdowns in the last two minutes, but the Scots scored a touchdown on a disputed play in the waning seconds for a 35-34 victory. Despite being disappointed by not reaching the semifinals, Israel defeated Banditi Ferrara 35-21 in the fifth place game, and finished the competition with a 3-4 record. The Cleavers were the surprise tournament champions, defeating three-time defending champion Pygargues 34-21 in the final. AFI president Steve Leibowitz, who was called upon to serve as an international referee at the competition, said that he was proud of the performance of the national squads, but also disappointed with the results. "The Israeli women put on an impressive performance," he said. "We dominated top-level opponents throughout the tournament, only to fall flat in the final." Women's coach Yonah Mishaan was also less-than-satisfied with the second place finish. "On the one hand, we have taken our women's team to a new level of performance where we are now viewed as the favorite against top teams from Europe and North America," he said. "On the other hand, we are the team to beat, and the Canadian club managed to win the final even though we played the best football throughout the tournament." Several of the players shed tears as the team sang Hatikva at the awards ceremony, at which they received their silver medals. "There is a lot of work to do on the men's side," noted Leibowitz. "We have the talent in the AFI to compete with the best players in Europe. But football is about team work and we will have to work hard to build a team that will know how to play better together, especially on defense." Leibowitz cited the leadership and play of quarterback Kenny Zwiebel and top receiver Naftali Schwartz. Others on the squad included Aryeh "The Animal" Bauman, Alan Tover, Amir Kronberg, Yosef Cohen and Mishaan. Mishaan had a host of accolades for the play of the women's team. Offensive stars included quarterback Shana Sprung, receiver Ahuva Odenheimer, Estie Bernstein, Yael Freedman and Ayelet Wartelsky. The defense was anchored by Elissa Sagoskin, Emily Neilson, Sarit Bailey and Adena Brickman. Jessie Kandell and Miriam Rappaport saw limited action. The women's team is sponsored by Myra Kraft, Fieldturf CEO John Gilman, Heritage Affinity Services and The men are sponsored by Cafe Rimon, Bobby Goldberg/Amtrust Bank and Barry Liben/Big Blue Travel.