Games we play: Israel primed for European success

The Israeli men's and women's national flagfootball teams head to Belfast, Northern Ireland, this week with arealistic chance of bringing home European Championship medals.

Bothlocal clubs are highly rated heading into theinternationally-recognized European Federation of American Football(EFAF) event. In June, the Israeli women established themselves ascontenders after finishing first at the Big Bowl in Waldorf, Germany.At the same tournament, the largest of its kind in Europe, the menfinished 4th out of 26 teams, and if not for questionable refereeing,could have easily been in the medals.

The three-day Euro Championships kick off on Friday, with themedal round played on Sunday. It's a very tough draw for the Israeliwomen, who face Sweden, France, Germany, Finland and Austria. At lastyear's World Championships in Canada, Israel lost to France anddefeated Austria as they finished 5th out of seven teams. Israel hasnever defeated the French or Finnish national teams, but has betteredSweden, Germany and Austria.

Coach Yonah Mishaan is upbeat about the team's chances to finish in the top three.

"Wehave the talent and the conditioning to compete on the very highestEuropean level," said Mishaan, adding, "The speed of the French and theathleticism of the Finns will be a challenge."

The women's squad is led by quarterback Shana Sprung and halfback Yael Freedman.

TheIsraeli men's program has been a rebuilding project of sorts forcaptain and quarterback Kenny Zwiebel. Most of the players are young,so they are sure to have fresh legs.

The men will meet France, Italy, Switzerland and Austria in thegroup stage. They have also never beaten the French, and lost to Italyat last year's worlds. The Swiss and Austrian teams are lessexperienced and should prove less of a challenge.

The men's tournament favorite is Denmark who is ranked 2nd inthe world, behind Canada. Leading players for Israel, who is coached onthe defensive side by innovative tactician Yossi Fuchs, includeveterans Akiva Rindenow, Dvir Weinberg and Joey Cohen.

AFI president Steve Leibowitz and injured national team player Ahuva Odenheimer will attend the tournament as referees.

As usual, the sponsor of the women's team is Myra Kraft, thewife of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The men's teamsponsors are businessmen/philanthropists Hart Hasten and Guma Aguiar,also hailed recently as the "savior" of local sports institutions BetarJerusalem, in soccer, and Hapoel Jerusalem, on the basketball court.