Dec 29, 2010

The Israel Footbal League Grows

After watching that video, you don't even need to read the article! But here it is anyway..

From The New York Times:
On a Thursday night early in December, Pinchas Zerbib took off his traditional cotton skullcap. In its place, he put on a polyester one.

The amateur Israel Football League has grown to 400 tackle football players in its fourth season from about 80 in its first.

The Jerusalem Lions’ Binyamin Schultz (41) was surrounded by the Judean Rebels in November. Binyamin Schultz had a catch against the Black Swarm in December. The more experienced Lions won.

“It’s my Under Armour yarmulke,” Zerbib said. “For practice, it’s better. Plus, it’s still kosher.”

As an orthodox Jew, Zerbib, a native of Israel, believes he must always wear a head covering. He spends his days studying in a yeshiva, or a Talmudic learning institution. But three nights a week, he suits up as a linebacker.

“I sit down and learn all day,” said Zerbib, a 27-year-old student. “I love to do this sport and stay healthy.”

Zerbib is not alone in his newfound appreciation of American football. In its fourth season, the full-pads, full-contact amateur Israel Football League, or I.F.L., is attracting a diverse crowd of players from all over the country. Players vary in age, and some are married with children. The league is 80 percent Israeli, with secular and orthodox Jews playing with and against Israeli Arab, Christian, Thai and even Palestinian players. The league has grown from roughly 80 tackle football players to more than 400.

As popular as the N.F.L. is in the United States, past attempts at spreading American football internationally have had limited success. Leagues like N.F.L. Europe, which shut down in 2007, have had problems drawing fans. But in a country so closely tied to American politics and culture, Israel is quickly gaining a football following. New players are joining each week, and crowds, though small, are steady.

“What we’re seeing is the beginnings,” said Uriel Sturm, the commissioner of the I.F.L. “In Israel, there are two major team sports: soccer and basketball. After that, it’s almost bare. We’re trying to take American football up to that next tier of sports.”

American football is no stranger to Israel. For the past 22 years the organization American Football in Israel, or A.F.I., has run a large flag football league, mainly in Jerusalem. It has offered an escape for American students and workers living in Israel, but only a small group of Israelis seemed interested in the rudimentary version of the game.

“It used to be that the guys were geeks,” said Assaf Graif, a former player and now an assistant for the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Sabres. “In the ’90s only the guys who were really into computers and on the Internet were exposed to the football culture.”

But with more access to the Internet, interest in the American sport gained ground — so much that the enthusiasm to start a tackle league came not from Americans in Israel but from native Israelis. In 2005, a group of them went to the head of American Football in Israel, Steve Leibowitz. “They said, ‘We’ve been playing tackle football on our own, but without equipment,’” Leibowitz said. “I said, basically, ‘You guys are a bunch of morons.’ ”

Leibowitz helped organize teams, gather regulation equipment and find volunteers to help run the I.F.L. In 2007, the league began with four teams. Since then, four more have been added. Israeli enthusiasm took the league only so far. Long before the I.F.L. started, Robert K. Kraft, the owner of the N.F.L.’s New England Patriots and a practicing Jew, donated money to build the first and only football stadium in Israel to house the flag football league. Kraft Stadium, situated in central Jerusalem, has lights, stands and artificial turf. In the center of the field is a Patriots logo.

“Building a stadium there was as hard as building a stadium here,” Kraft said in a telephone interview. After a year of political maneuvering and nearly $725,000 in donations from Kraft, Leibowitz and Kraft got the stadium built in 1999. But in 2007, when the idea of a tackle league playing in the stadium was brought up to Kraft, he was hesitant. He thought such a dangerous sport played by people with little to no experience would be a liability. Still, the Israelis were persistent, and he eventually supported the league, which is now named the Kraft Family I.F.L.

“It definitely helps that a lot of the guys here are 21-, 22-year-olds that just came out of the elite combat units,” said Yonah Mishaan, who coaches the Jerusalem Lions.

Mishaan was born in Los Angeles and moved with his family to Israel when he was 13. A brawny 38-year-old of Syrian descent, Mishaan owns one of the few American sports bars in Jerusalem, appropriately named the Lion’s Den. With a seven-hour time difference from New York, the bar regularly stays open past sunrise on Monday mornings so fans can watch Sunday night N.F.L. games.

“Football is such a cult here,” Mishaan said. “People just stay up all night, and then at 7:30, they’re out to work.”

While the league has found a niche audience, many Israelis are still surprised to hear of its existence. Crowds consist of family and friends of players, and they do not always understand the action on the field. At a recent Saturday afternoon game in Tel Aviv between the Pioneers and the visiting Herzliya Hammer, a first-year team in the league, fans of the new squad clapped and cheered after every play. Early in the game, the Hammer quarterback dramatically scrambled and threw an incomplete pass — and the crowd burst into applause. The Hammer lost, 56-18.

Equipment problems are a continual source of headaches. Because many football companies do not ship to the country, players are forced to fend for themselves to get proper equipment. For many, this means having an American friend buy the gear and ship it to Israel, nearly doubling the cost.

“Every time I go to America, I buy up all the cleats I can,” said Graif, the Tel Aviv assistant, who often travels for medical conferences. “I know I’ll be able to sell them easy.”

On a recent Thursday night, the Lions faced off against the Beer Sheva Black Swarm, a second-year team with little experience. As one of the original four teams and a three-time Israel Bowl contender, the Lions are one of the more seasoned and well-equipped teams in the league. Even so, one player on the Lions had not received his jersey through customs and threw on an extra-large white T-shirt over his shoulder pads. His coach used a marker to scribble No. 86 on his back.

The game was unmistakably that of an amateur league. Tackles were missed more often than they were successful, 11 fumbles were committed and referees had to stop the game for minutes at a time to argue a ruling among themselves more than once.

But some talent came through. The Lions won, 36-6, in a dominating fashion, proving themselves an experienced and organized team.

Could this one day be a breeding ground for future football stars?

“Now I see it as a great amateur sport,” Kraft said. “It’d be great to one day see players developed to a higher level.”

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