(JNS) The American Football in Israel (AFI) men’s and women’s national teams returned home this week, proudly representing their country halfway around the globe at the 2018 International Federation of American Football (IFAF) Flag Football World Championships in Panama.
While neither team medaled at the tournament, the men’s squad just missed making the podium with several close losses, finishing in fifth place. The women’s team also had several close games, which came down to the wire but ended up with a 10th-place finish.
The men ended the first round tournament stage with a 2-3 record, losing in the medal round quarterfinals to the eventual champions United States 27-12. However, the team rebounded from that loss to defeat Canada 39-12—avenging an earlier loss to the Canadians—to claim fifth place.
The women’s team opened the tournament with a loss to the eventual champion’s United States before losing a nail-biter to Demark 25-22. With losses to Austria and Mexico, the squad was eliminated from medal contention.
While the men’s team didn’t bring home any hardware, Steve Leibowitz, president of the Israel Federation of American Football, who attended the tournament, told JNS that “this was definitely the most talented men’s [Israeli] team ever sent to a world championship. We were good enough to medal for the first time. A few bad breaks in the opening-round games cost us, including a close loss against Canada. As a result, we had to face Team USA in the quarterfinals. We played well against the Americans, but they were the best team in Panama.”
Leibowitz said the women’s result in the tournament was “disappointing, mainly due to the great improvement in the other teams,” acknowledging that the team would need to rebuild before the next major tournament.
Women’s national team coach Elissa Sagoskin echoed Leibowitz’s assessment, telling JNS that “the level of women’s flag football is extremely high,” adding “we obviously feel that we could have done better. We put a lot of time and effort into getting ready, but we have to learn from it.”
Sagoskin said that “objectively, as a fan, you can see how much the competition has grown, and it leaves us with a lot of planning on how to work and get better in order to compete.”
‘Next year in Jerusalem’
On the men’s side, player/coach Binyamin Schultz had mixed feelings on how the team played, saying “we played OK, but it could have been better.” He said the team should focus on the positives from the results and move forward in order to prepare for future competitions.
There is a silver lining though, as Leibowitz was proud note that in Panama, it was announced that “Israel was chosen to host the European Championships [of flag football] next year in Jerusalem. We are very excited about the opportunity to show off our country.”
That tournament, which will feature both men’s and women’s competitions, is tentatively scheduled for June.
Leibowitz also expressed his gratitude to the sponsors of both the men’s and women’s teams in Panama. For the men, it was New York businessman Ira Kleinman; for the women, it was New England Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft.
The Kraft family has been the main supporter of American Football in Israel for nearly two decades. In June of last year, in the presence of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and a group of NFL Hall of Fame players visiting Israel, the Kraft Family Sports Campus was officially dedicated in Jerusalem. According to the Jerusalem Municipality, the Kraft family donated $6 million to the project.
Spanning more than 25 acres, the facility boasts several regulation sports fields, including the country’s first and only full-sized American football field featuring regulation goal posts.
Since Leibowitz, an immigrant from the United States, along with other football fanatics founded the AFI in 1988 exactly 30 years ago, the popularity of the sport has grown enormously.
While soccer remains the most popular sport in Israel, in addition to the men’s and women’s national teams are more than 2,000 Israelis—men, women and youth, along with gap-year students from the United States—participating in six different tackle and flag American football leagues all over the country. The AFI also runs after-school sports programs in different areas throughout Israel.
The AFI website boasts that “as it attracts players from all walks of life, American football is helping to unify Israeli society. Players and fans are drawn from all economic levels, ethnicities and religions.”