(JR) — Israel’s under-17 men’s flag football team won its first-ever gold medal at the 2023 International Federation of American Football’s European Junior Flag Football Championships hosted in Grosseto, Italy, this past weekend.
The Israeli team beat Serbia 34-14 in the championship game after defeating Italy in a close semifinal. Israel’s under-17 women’s team and under-15 coed team both finished fifth in their respective competitions.
“Our first gold after decades of trying,” Steve Leibowitz, president of American Football in Israel (AFI), told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Tough young Israeli players against the best young players in Europe. The moment the whistle blew… I knew we had finally arrived. Next thought, first we conquer Europe, the Worlds are next.”
Despite appeals from the Israeli players — a majority of whom are Orthodox, according to Leibowitz — Israel was scheduled to play games on Shabbat. All three teams had to forfeit, resulting in 35-0 losses.
Leibowitz said the under-17 men’s team had performed well enough to advance to the final four even with the forfeit, but that the under-17 women’s team would have needed a win in Saturday’s game in order to advance.
American football is on the rise in Israel, where approximately 2,000 players, coaches and referees are now involved in the league throughout the country. The sport has made notable strides among native-born Israelis, Leibowitz told JR earlier this year. Israel hosted the 2019 European Flag Football Championship and the 2021 Flag Football World Championship.
Last month, Israel’s men’s national team won a bronze medal at the Flag Football European Championships in Limerick, Ireland.
Leibowitz — a journalist who moved from the United States to Israel in 1974 and has spearheaded the slow but steady growth of football there — said AFI has developed enough talent to send a team to the 2024 World Championship in Finland, where finishing in the top eight would earn qualification for the 2025 World Games in China. He said the organization’s ultimate goal is to qualify for the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles — which might include flag football for the first time.
After this weekend’s win, Leibowitz thanked those who have financially supported the sport’s growth in Israel, namely New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft — who built Israel’s first football field in 2000 — as well as Minnesota Vikings owner Mark Wilf.
“With the help of the Kraft family we created a game plan and implementation is underway,” Leibowitz said. “It starts with great coaches, creating stiff competition to make the team, tough Israel league competition and as much international tournament experience as possible.”