One man's obsession makes Israel a superpower in a little-known sport
Seven years ago, some fancy Brazilian footwork convinced Amir Zohar to abandon his restaurant and nightclub and start over.
Seven years ago, some fancy footwork by a Brazilian soccer team at a volleyball net on Tel Aviv's Gordon Beach convinced Amir Zohar to abandon his restaurant and nightclub and start over.
"I left the nightlife business, the paperwork and the banks, and found a quiet niche," he recalls. "From the moment I bounced the ball, I saw how the sport - footvolley - could develop in Israel."
Footvolley - which was created in Brazil - is nearly identical to beach volleyball with one key difference: You can't use your hands or arms.
Since his decision seven years ago, Zohar hasn't left the beach. "I put in 10 hours a day, watched clips on YouTube, looked ahead a few years and knew what was waiting for me at the end," he says. "I gave up a lot of things to reach the goal I set for myself. It started with a small tournament, attracting more and more people, until the league opened."
For the first two years, Zohar won the league championship in Israel, and finished in first place the current season, on his way to the Final Four. Beyond his personal success he is buoyed by the strength of the sport, which has become a hit locally.
"It's a dream come true. I'm not one to show my emotions, but a month ago was the first time I was really moved. I was running on the [Tel Aviv] beach promenade, going from beach to beach - Frishman, Gordon, the Dolphinarium - and I saw people playing footvolley everywhere," he says.
"I suddenly remembered how one afternoon I sat on the steps at Gordon Beach; it was completely empty and I was thinking whom to call to set up a game. Today when I run I see a court on every beach. They're popping up before my eyes. I'm glad I put so much effort into it and believed. Everyone who suggested I give up knows they were wrong. There has been a big boom this season. I don't have to explain what footvolley is to people anymore."
But Zohar was not content to make do with local hegemony, so he set out abroad. "Three years ago I flew to international tournaments, and people were glad to draw me in the players lottery because it guaranteed a win," he says. "Today I'm a favorite and finish in the top four. Israel is one of the top five teams in the world."
In April, Zohar and his footvolley partner Lior Baum took off for an international tournament in the Caribbean. "His contact lenses were in our suitcases, which never arrived, and all the conditions were against us," Zohar recounts. "He played with eyeglasses and we managed to win day after day. While the other pairs were practicing, we drove all over the island to find contact lenses for him. Suddenly we were in the finals; we just didn't get it."
The exotic experience ended with a loss to Brazil, and a terrific second-place showing, but recently Baum was injured. If he didn't heal for the Final Four, a Brazilian player was set to team up with Zohar and try to help him win his third championship in a row.
The 27-year-old Zohar is attempting to spread his love of the game throughout Israel. "Footvolley is a dance - it attracts everyone who likes to play and have a good time; women and older people too," he says. "People are a bit afraid to get into the game, but once you start, it catches on like a disease."
Zohar conducts individual training sessions for soccer players and is working on opening a school on the beach. At the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sport they've already heard about the new trend. "We're cooperating with them to organize the training of certified footvolley coaches," Zohar says. "I think the program will be ready to go at full speed within three months."
Zohar served in the Israeli Defense Forces as a combat soldier in a Golani unit. He hurt his back during training and had to cut his service short after two years. Today his life is mainly ball, net and waves. Even his partner of nearly 11 years couldn't keep up with the pace and left the picture.
"I have two passions in life - surfing and footvolley," he proclaims. "I've become devoted to them and abandoned everything else. I live for the sea; surfing is like meditation for me. When a wave arrives I allow myself to leave the footvolley court for a few hours .... I have three dogs; I think I manage better with them than with people."
Like in 'The Matrix'
Between games and backbreaking training, he takes care of his father, who has suffered a heart attack, and tries to spot the new generation of players on the beaches.
"Today, a lot of young people wander from kiosk to kiosk, drinking [alcohol], and suddenly I see youngsters who spend their entire summer vacation with me at the beach, listening to everything I say and learning from me," he says.
"If you catch them at the right time, their whole way of looking at things changes. For me, it's enough if a kid asks me to throw a ball around. I leave everything, approach him and know I've hooked another one. We have the best conditions in the world and the most talented youngsters. Like in the movie 'The Matrix,' we find them and identify their high potential."
More than anything, Zohar dreams that footvolley will become an Olympic sport, and nowhere is more suitable than Rio de Janeiro. The sport was born on its beaches and the city is hosting the 2016 Olympics. "That would be a grand finale, whether I'm on the beach playing or behind the scenes," Zohar says. "Either way, I'll keep the ticket and know I've achieved my wish."