Unwrapping our hopes for Israel’s athletes

A big upcoming year for blue-and-white, with Olympic, hoops and cycling opportunities

ISRAEL’S NATIONAL baseball team will be one of only six teams at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an incredible accomplishment and the culmination of years of hard work to assemble a top-notch squad to compete next year against the world’s best.  (photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
ISRAEL’S NATIONAL baseball team will be one of only six teams at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, an incredible accomplishment and the culmination of years of hard work to assemble a top-notch squad to compete next year against the world’s best.
(photo credit: MARGO SUGARMAN)
With Hannukah upon us and 2020 around the corner, now’s the best time to look at some sports gifts that all Israelis, Jews and friends of Holy Land worldwide would love to receive this coming year. Eight nights, eight lights, eight wishes and eight sports accomplishments that are all within reach for the blue-and-white over the next 365 days, especially with the Tokyo Olympics at our doorstep.
1) The Israel national baseball team will have a legitimate chance to win a medal at the Olympic Games this summer. How is that possible, one may ask? Simple, put together a team of Americans who are eligible to make Aliya, immigrate to Israel and represent the country that they love on the grandest stage. After going through a number of qualifying rounds over this past summer in Germany and Italy, Israel will have a team represented at the Olympics for the first time since the soccer squad did the same at the 1976 Games in Montreal. Coming off an impressive performance at the 2017 World Baseball Classic, the blue-and-white was able to ride the momentum as it navigated its way to the promised land, where it will face the likes of Japan, Mexico and South Korea, with two more teams to qualify in the upcoming months.
2) The reigning world champion in judo’s under-81kg category is Israeli Sagi Muki, who will no doubt want to show the world what he can do in Tokyo this coming summer. Muki had a fantastic year, culminating with taking the gold medal at the end of August in Japan, and he will try to duplicate that feat once again in the same venue at the Olympics. However, for Muki it isn’t going to be just winning the gold that will satisfy him; it will be facing off against Saied Mollalei, the Iranian judoka who left his country and will now represent Mongolia at the upcoming Games. Muki has said time and again that he wants to be an ambassador of peace and his biggest thrill would be to give Mollalei a hug as they battle it out for supremacy on the mat.
3) Staying with the Olympic theme, Linoy Ashram will also be a huge medal hope at the Games when the 20-year-old rhythmic gymnast will attempt to use her mastery in the ball, hoop, clubs and ribbon to capture gold in Tokyo. Ashram has had a fabulous year, collecting medal after medal be it at the European Games or the World Championships. Her biggest threats are the Russian Averina sisters, Dina and Arina, but due to the current situation their country is in due to doping sanctions, it is not yet known if and how they will be competing against Ashram which could help pave the Israeli’s way to the top of the podium.
4) Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball is going through a renaissance of late as its Greek head coach Ioannis Sfairopoulos has been able to mold the squad into a well-oiled machine that has regained its respectable standing across the continent and will be a huge threat to win the Euroleague championship in May of 2020.  With a 10-4 record in the competition the sky’s the limit for this team, which perhaps will ascend back to its rightful place as title-winner, which it last did in 2014. The team is suffering from the injury bug, but reinforcements are on the way with the recent signing of Euroleague-champion guard Aaron Jackson.
5) Deni Avdija is Israel’s biggest NBA hope since Omri Casspi was selected 23rd overall in the 2009 draft. Avdija is a phenom who will turn 19 in January and is slated to be a top-10 lottery pick. Of course, just being selected doesn’t mean that he will be a star, but he has proven to everyone so far that he will can handle his own whether it’s been in the Euroleague, the domestic league or with the junior national teams. Hearing Avdija’s name at the 2020 NBA Draft this summer will be a highlight for many around the globe.
6) Hapoel Jerusalem is creating its own legacy in Europe by playing in the Basketball Champions League. The Reds have been competitive for years in continental play and will have a legitimate chance to not only win the Final Four tournament in May, but also host it as well. After falling in the quarterfinals last season. Oded Katash’s crew is back with a vengeance with players who want to win it all. Whether being led by James Feldeine, J’Covan Brown or Tamir Blatt, Jerusalem has a real shot to take its first continental competition since the ULEB Cup in 2004.
7) Over on the soccer field, Israel must once again focus on trying to have its club teams qualify for European competition. Maccabi Tel Aviv was the last team to advance to the Champions League group stage, in the fall of 2015 while Israel hasn’t had a squad feature in the Europa League since the 2017/18 campaign. That needs to change quickly as the blue-and-white continues to fall behind the other countries. In addition, the Israel national team has a chance to punch its ticket to the 2020 European Championship as it plays in the last-chance Nations League tournament. However, it will have to get by a tough test in Scotland first to have any hope of advancing.
8) The Israel Cycling Academy is no more as founder Sylvan Adams has rebranded the team Israel Start-Up Nation, and the squad will compete in the Tour de France this coming summer. After making inroads at the Giro d’Italia and hosting a number of stages in the Holy Land a couple of years ago, it’s time for Israel to present a full-flight cycling team that has a chance to ride in the top races with a chance to be competitive day-in and day-out. The team will be able to reach out to millions of fans throughout the world and spread the good word about Israel, the true Start-Up Nation.
Last but not least, a Shamash. A wish – a fantasy really – that would be one of the greatest spectacles on earth coming to Israel. With the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo this summer, there have been whispers about bringing some of the top basketball national teams to the country for a warm-up tournament. With the USA planning on sending its top stars in LeBron James, Steph Curry and James Harden to the Games, along with other powerhouse nations including France and Spain, imagine the bonanza that would take over Israel for such a competition. Taking example from Leo Messi and Argentina along with Uruguay recently playing in Tel Aviv, this hoops dream could certainly become a reality.
Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at [email protected]