Israeli tackle football: A journey from dream to reality

Far from the East coast of the United States, the sport seems to be settling into its new home, almost 6,000 miles away from its American birthplace.

Israel Football League (photo credit: RICK BLUMSACK,Courtesy)
Israel Football League
(photo credit: RICK BLUMSACK,Courtesy)
By definition, American Football is, well, American. Yet, that fact has not stopped football of the tackle variety from reaching the sunny shores of Israel.
Far from the East coast of the United States, the sport seems to be settling into its new home, almost 6,000 miles away from its American birthplace.
Still in its infancy, the Israeli Football League – only six years old – is gaining some traction within the country, and is well on its way to a measure of relevancy within the Israeli athletics scene.
Having started with only a dream and 25 players, the league has grown to include 10 teams and over 450 players nationwide.
However, the sport is nothing new in Israel – it is now in its 25th year, according to Steve Leibowitz, a founding father of the sport, now president of American Football in Israel, the umbrella organization for all football operations in the country.
“I came over here as a normal American immigrant in 1974 and I had no place to play football,” said Leibowitz in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post.
“In the mid-1980s I got together with some friends and we started a league, and I’ve playing ever since.”
The athletic scope in Israel is ever expanding, and football is quickly establishing itself as part of Israel’s future – a future filled with all the funding from all the right people to make the league and the sport popular in a country that loves its sports.
With support from the Wilf family, owners of the Minnesota Vikings, as well as hedge fund billionaire, Henry Swieca, and most important, the Kraft family, owners of the New England Patriots, the league has found its trio of hotshot financiers to make many of its goals reality.
The connection to Pats’ owner Robert Kraft has been well documented. The Kraft fingerprints are all over the league: in the league name, “Kraft Family IFL,” and in the Kraft Family Stadium.
The Krafts have been instrumental in getting the league off the ground, as well as continuing the progression of the league, which, as Betzalel Friedman, current IFL commissioner, earnestly pointed out, means finding and making bigger, full-sized fields for the league to play on.
“Real estate in Israel is a heavy-duty issue in Israel. It’s expensive,” Friedman recently said in an interview.
Right now, other than Kraft Stadium, which the federation owns, every other team has to find a soccer field that they are able to rent out, and it’s not always available, and they’re not always able to get it when they need.”
Playing place is a huge issue for the league, and it hopes that Kraft can contribute more than just money to help this cause. The league hopes his connections with the state are also going to help the league reach its goal of moving the game from eight-on-eight to 11-on- 11 football.
According to Friedman, Mr. Kraft has an intimate relationship with Jerusalem Mayor, Nir Barkat, which the league hopes can yield a space in Jerusalem to build a regulation-sized field.
“Right now, the only field that belongs to us is Kraft Stadium in Jerusalem, which is only an 80-yard field, and is narrower than a normal college field in the United States,” said Leibowitz.
We need to eventually build a larger field in Jerusalem, which we hope will happen in the next years.”
The league actually hopes to make the leap in the next two years, so that in 2016 Israel can compete in the European Championship with 11 men, which could give the country and the IFL some real international recognition, and help the region grow the sport through external means.
“We think that having a national team and giving our players something to aspire to that’s bigger than their own team plays a huge part of growing the sport because people will have something to look forward to, and aspire towards,” postulated Friedman.
There are about 20 countries in Europe that have national teams, and there are three levels to the tournament: A, B, and C, where Israel will be starting out in. The winner of the level C tournament then moves on to level B tournament, and then A.
With regulation-sized fields to play on, Israel and the IFL hopes to make a competitive enough team to compete with some of the national teams in Europe.
Equipped with the funding and personnel to realize so many of these goals, the next big obstacle is popularity, both by engaging new players and fans, yet the IFL even thinks it has an answer to that problem as well.
With an average of 45-players per team, says Friedman, which has only developed in the past couple years, the league now has the personnel to make 11-on-11 happen, but it will first require the space to do so.
“[The league] had a growth of over 10 percent over the last two seasons in terms of the number of players,” said Friedman, who took over as the commissioner in June of 2013.
Even more encouraging is the way that Israelis have taken to playing the sport.
Leibowitz reasons that about 70 percentage of the league are Israeli sabras, evidencing that the sport is growing within the country. It is not just the Americans immigrants that are playing – Israelis with no football knowledge or experience are taking to the sport, which is exactly what Leibowitz, Friedman, and the league are trying to accomplish.
“The Israeli players, the good ones, are all on the field, and they’re not losing playing time to these American guys that have more experience than them because there are so few American players,” said Leibowitz. "We play with the Israeli players as good or bad as they are.”
With the talent level and understanding of the game at an all time, and Israeli sabras buying into the game, football seems to have a firm foothold in Israel.
According to Friedman, in the next five years, based on the ascendant success the league has been experiencing, the league should be at 11-man football, a few hundred fans at every game, and more developed youth programs.
But what is most important renders Friedman, is “to continue our good fortune with hard work, but also continue to plan for the future, which will enable us to reach our goals.”