Gridiron stars show no sign of flagging
The Israeli American football teams take the field in Belfast this weekend, in an international tournament that will see the three top countries win through to the World championships in Canada in 2010.
Playing the non-contact version of the game, known as Flag football, the Israelis are serious contenders. The women’s side topped a major international tournament played outside Frankfort earlier this year.
“We are just getting going in our drive for success at international level,” explains tour organiser Kenny Zweibel. “Our offence players can compete with the best in the world”.
The men are confident they can improve on their sixth place showing in Germany, where they believe umpire decisions went against them.
What makes American football quite unusual for Israel is the extent to which it is played by the religious community. Home-grown teams are augmented by visiting yeshiva and seminary students from the States. They play for teams called Lev Hatorah and Chabad Lubads.
Over a thousand sportsmen and women already play the game each week in Israel. But its gaining momentum, thanks in large measure to international success.
“Our real mission is Belfast, where winning through to the world championships would be massive for us,” says Zweibel. To qualify for Canada, the Israeli teams have to beat main rivals Austria, Germany and Italy, as well as host nation Ireland.
The sport in Israel is backed by the Kraft family who own the New England Patriots and sponsor the state of the art Kraft stadium in Jerusalem. There is a High School programme, summer camps and hotly contested league and cup competitions.
Terry McCorran of Northern Ireland Friends of Israel said: “You cannot help but be impressed how they put their religious principles before their chances of winning. It’s real Chariots of Fire stuff.”