The hosting of the Flag Football World Championship at the Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem this week is the realization of a Zionist dream. At least it is for me.
When I came on aliyah in 1974, I left behind my country of birth – the United States. I also left and severely missed the sports I grew up with in New York, namely baseball, basketball and football.
Though living in Israel, I refused to stop loving American sports, although in those pre-Internet days it was nearly impossible to keep up with developments or watch games from the MLB, NBA or NFL. What I found was that Israel was heavy into soccer; basketball was growing rapidly; softball was developing a strong local Anglo-league; but football was nowhere to be seen.
The football journey began back in 1989 when Danny Gewirtz and I got together with friends and started a small touch football league in Jerusalem, marking the first time organized football was played in this country. The AFI men’s league grew and so did our women’s league, WAFI. About 20 years ago, along with AFI Vice President Yonah Mishaan, we set out to discover the newly developing world of international flag football.
With the eventual emergence of the International Federation of American Football, Israeli teams began traveling the world playing the game we love at the highest level.
In 2014 we were given the opportunity to host the IFAF’s World Championship in 2014. The Gaza war came, hundreds of rockets were falling in Israel, and the tournament was moved just a month before opening day. It was played in Gosetto, Italy.
It took several years before the IFAF was willing to give us another chance, and in 2019 the IFAF European championship was played in Jerusalem. We did not know if we would ever get another chance to host a world championship.
The pandemic changed that in a hurry. Denmark withdrew from hosting the 2020 World Championship, which was canceled. Spain was due to take Denmark’s place and host the championship earlier this year, but it too withdrew from hosting. Then Israel stepped up and offered to host, at a time when international football and indeed the world as we knew it was being profoundly changed by COVID.
Like many nations, we had little or no football for more than a year. Fortunately, we managed to keep our small staff during the lockdowns. When the opportunity presented itself, I was convinced that the same staff that organized the European Championships in 2019 could pull together a championship in the midst of a pandemic. And we did.
More than 800 men and women football players from all over the world are now in Jerusalem with 39 teams from 23 countries. The highest level of international football is being played this week in Jerusalem, the ancient and historic Israeli capital, which is now the unlikely host of an American Football World Championship. It’s the fulfillment of my Zionist dream to bring football to the Holy Land.
The writer is president of AFI – American Football in Israel. Ruthie Lieberman and her team contributed to this article.