Is Israel ready for some tackle football?

America’s most popular sport already has a foothold in Israel, and its backers aim to make it the country’s third-largest team sport.

IFL players in action (photo credit: DANIELLA DOLGIN)
IFL players in action
(photo credit: DANIELLA DOLGIN)
With nine seconds on the clock, the quarterback scrambles for a play. He fakes right and looks left, aims and throws high in the air.
“Eight, seven…” Touchdown! The team scores with six seconds remaining in the game. Suddenly, the game is tied and goes into overtime. The crowd goes crazy, with energy flowing from one end zone to the other.
This is how Israel Bowl X, one of the more memorable games in the recent history of the Kraft Israeli Football League, culminated. In a very sportsmanlike atmosphere, in front of hundreds of fans at Petah Tikva’s Hamoshava Stadium, the Jerusalem Lions defeated the Tel Aviv Pioneers 42-36 on March 30 and won the IFL’s 10th annual championship game.
The IFL just recently concluded its 10th season, which featured teams from all over the country. Made up of some 1,350 registered players, including men, women and youths, the league has many goals it would still like to achieve.
According to the International Federation of American Football website, the IFL and a majority of the football landscape in Israel owes great thanks to the Kraft family. American Football in Israel is the parent organization in charge of the IFL and other football leagues. “AFI has a very special relationship with the Kraft family, owners of the New England Patriots,” it says on the IFAF website.
“Without their love and support, American football in Israel would be far from where it is today.”
“Football is now the fifth-largest team sport in the country, as well as being the largest non-Olympic sport, in terms of participants,” says IFL commissioner Betzalel Friedman. As of this year, there are eight men’s teams. “Our goal is to become the third-largest team sport in the country, behind soccer and basketball.
Everyone is working very hard, one step at a time, and we will get there.”
While a professional US football team has 11 players for each play, the teams in Israel have nine. He hopes the number of American-style football players keeps growing. “We are still working on moving to 11 on 11. We have bigger fields now, and we had a great competition level this year,” he adds.
Friedman has been commissioner for the past four years. He made aliya with his family from Indianapolis when he was 10.
“I followed football, but never played until we got here,” he says. “I saw a flyer for a new team and just called the number on the flyer.” He played and coached for Jerusalem’s second IFL team, the Rebels.
Friedman says it’s actually word of mouth that helps increase the number of players for each new season. “A friend brings a friend who tells a friend, and that’s how we spread.”
As of today, about 70% of the players playing in the IFL are Sabras and not expats or Israelis who were born in the US.
One of the steps taken to increase the number of people joining the IFL was the introduction of the Kraft Israel High School Football League (IHFL).
Ori Shterenbach is the commissioner of the IHFL. According to him, there are currently nine teams in the league, with Kfar Saba holding the title as the reigning champions.
“There is a lot of love for football and the community is growing,” he says.
“We had a record number of players this year; over 300 high schoolers played.”
The high school league is open to all males between the ages of 14 and 18.
Shterenbach, one of the original founders of the IFL, has headed the IHFL for the past five years. Coaching and playing with the Haifa Underdogs, it wasn’t until he returned from a US trip that he took on the new position.
“I had been to the US, learning how to coach football in Huntsville, Alabama.
When I came back, I took the position of commissioner,” he explains. “The goal from day one was the vision to build a strong football community and having a lot of kids playing the game.” This includes forming an under-19 national youth team to represent the country in international competitions.
“We are trying to build something for the near future. The team’s first competition would probably be sometime next year,” Shterenbach says. He said the IHFL has proven its success as a proper predecessor for the adult league. “More than 30 guys who started playing in the IHFL are now a part of the IFL. More and more names come to the IFL from the high school league.”
TWO OF the IFL’s biggest stars are Yaniv Kovalski and Yuval Fenta.
Twenty-three-year-old Kovalski will be attending Stonehill University in Easton, Massachusetts, next year. He became the first IFL player to get a full scholarship to college based on his football skills.
Kovalski will be competing for a position as an offensive lineman.
It wasn’t until Kovalski was approached by Boyer High School in Jerusalem to play the game that he thought he’d ever take part in it.
“I wasn’t familiar with the sport, and never heard of it until I was 17. I was studying at Himmelfarb High School across the street,” he says.
This was a chance for him to leave one path and begin a new one.
“They [Boyer] told me about the ball and everything else about the sport. I was bored playing basketball at the time, so I said to myself, maybe I should make the move to play football.”
He remembers the first week of his football career as if it were yesterday.
“I joined the team toward the end of 2007 [the first year the high school league was introduced]. My first practice was on a Tuesday, and that same Thursday I was already suited up for a football game.”
In the beginning, Kovalski played defense. A change one of his coaches suggested three years ago made him into an offensive lineman.
“My coach back then convinced me that I should move to the offensive side, playing as an extra blocker for the quarterback.”
Having a black belt from tae kwon do training, Kovalski is a very skilled athlete.
“It took me a year or so to realize I can play in college,” he says. “I have good instincts, and the more I got into it, the more I got excited about it. The offensive line position gets hit the most. You hit the most, and you get hit; it’s a battle in the trenches. Every step, every down, every drive, you just pound the ball.”
Kovalski played for the Judean Rebels professional team for four years and won two championship rings with them.
Following his time with the Rebels, he started playing for the Pioneers.
“I want to know that when I leave the field, I will have put out my heart and soul, so I can say to myself I gave it all. You don’t want to leave the field having any doubts,” he says.
A FORMER teammate and another big IHFL prospect is Fenta, 20, the Tel Aviv Pioneers’ starting running back. He played for Kfar Saba’s IHFL team before joining the Pioneers two years ago.
“I knew we had football in Kfar Saba,” Fenta says, “and one day a friend of mine asked me to join one of their practices.
I’ve been playing football every day since then.” Fenta says football has become his way of life.
“Nothing compares to playing a football game. You just learn to love it, whether it being the physicality of the game or the challenging parts of it,” he declares. Fenta is also a member of the Israeli national team.
“It’s a very interesting experience,” he says. “Singing the national anthem on foreign land is something amazing, especially while wearing the blue and white uniform.”
He says his Pioneers teammates are his friends off the field as well. “I have friends here I have known since elementary school and friends who are 40-year-old players, whom I call and speak with on the phone every day. They are like brothers and parents for me.”
The same familial sentiment is seen within different teams in the league as well. For Jerusalem Lions tight end Daniel Schechter, it all started at home.
Born in Baltimore but growing up in Jerusalem, Schechter saw his father play in Israel’s American Touch Football league.
“I grew up watching dad, and once I was 15-16 years old I started playing it for a few years,” he says of the ATFI, the predecessor to what later became the tackle football IFL.
A few years later, Schechter moved to the US, and when he returned he discovered there was a tackle football league in Israel. He was hooked immediately.
“I never played tackle football in my life, and I was 30 years old. I was very excited to have the opportunity to play. It is a game I never thought I’d be allowed to play, since you don’t usually get to play the game after high school ends.”
Schechter has been playing with the Lions for six years now, and said it’s like having an extra family.
“Anybody who puts on the big blue uniform becomes family. When you’re a teammate of someone in a tackle football team, there is no situation that you haven’t been through together, very similar to the army. You ate dirt together; you practiced together, threw up together or sat in the stinky bus and locker room together. It creates a bond which is long-lasting.”
In speaking of the Israel Bowl X game, Schechter is well aware of the history between the two teams.
“It’s been a very interesting season. Last year, we lost in the semifinals to the same Pioneers. We have an inner-city rivalry with the Rebels, but our real rivals have always been the Pioneers. They beat our butts the last time we made it to the championship game three years ago.
“What’s nice about the IFL is that, while we’ll take each other’s heads off during the game, there’s a camaraderie among all players. You got both teams mingling right before the game starts. That doesn’t happen in every sport and is unique to this league.”
Schechter has four children – three girls and a boy. “My four-year-old son is already playing football. It’s a gift that I got from my father, and it’s obviously a passion for me, so to be able to share that with my son is worth it all,” he says.
Gani Medad, coach of the Lions, agrees with Schechter and values the importance of commitment.
“I value hard work and loyalty. We, the big blue Lions, call ourselves first and foremost a family and not a football team. Family is first, and that includes taking care of each other off and on the field.”
Medad played for several years with the Lions. Coaching at the Israel Bowl X was definitely a highlight of his football career. On the field just before the game, he told The Jerusalem Post Magazine: “You have the responsibility of 45 guys looking at you and expecting you to lead them.
“I’ve been in several championship games and have never won. It should happen this year – we really want it and we deserve it, since we played the best football all season long.”
Alongside a men’s national team, there are plans to have a women’s team as well. Yona Mishan, who has been involved with various aspects in the AFI, is now trying to build a women’s team.
“The main problem is commitment, and women deciding that they want to play tackle football,” he says.
Since there is already the foundation of a strong women’s flag football national team, Mishan hopes this can serve as an initial step toward the formation of a tackle team.
“Flag [football] women and men are at a very high level. We are a country to reckon with, and people don’t want to play us. It is the real deal,” he says.
Mishan does acknowledge that the men’s national team has to get better.
“The Europeans are at a level we are nowhere close to,” he says. “We have players who can play the sport; but as a team sport, playing 11 on 11, is something we are not ready for yet.”
Daniel Ben-Zvi, the Tel Aviv Pioneers’ head coach, says that although the IFL has lost several teams over the past few years, the overall direction is positive.
“I think right now we are at a point where a lot of high-school players are going to be coming up with a lot of experience and a high level of play.
The league is going to improve. I think it is the right way to go, to start from the bottom going up, and we will start seeing this. These things take time.”