The Beautiful Game of Soccer, but Not for Israeli Girls

The only community in which soccer for females has taken off is Israel's Anglos. Others fear developing 'unfeminine' figures.

Keren Gur, just over 13 and a star of the Hapoel Ra'anana soccer team, is very sorry the season is over.

"We won the championship this year and it was so much fun," she sighs. "Too bad it all ends so suddenly and now there's a summer without soccer."

Gur, who was recently invited to join "the Athena gold roster," a sort of national team for girls aged under 14, has been playing soccer since first grade, when she was still living and attending school in the U.S. "I started playing because my sister, who's three years older than me, played," she explains.

Her sister, Lia, is still playing with her. The Gur sisters do not look like typical soccer players. Both are tall, thin and delicate looking. But the two are crazy about the round ball and the green pitch.

"In America lots of girls play soccer," says Keren. "There they don't think that playing soccer is unfeminine. When we arrived in Israel five years ago, there wasn't a single girls' team in the area, and for me that was one of the hardest things in my absorption here."

Their mother, Dorothy Gur, a yoga instructor married to an Israeli man, decided to get involved in the girls' soccer project. "Ra'anana used to have a small soccer team for girls," she says, "but for years the team wasn't active. When we came to Israel and the two girls didn't have where to play soccer, it was clear to me that something had to be done. I started working on it and making calls, set up an Internet forum - did everything to try to form a team. In America, every small town has a girls' soccer team. Practically every girl plays. It's inconceivable that in a place like this, with such weather, a girl would not have the option of playing soccer."

Dorothy Gur is now the manager of Hapoel Ra'anana's youth department, which oversees three teams for girls aged 9-11, 11-14 and 15-18, with a total of 45 players.

Tamir Chvoinik, the coach of the girls' teen team, believes "they have created something beautiful out of nothing here. But if you check, you'll find that around 80-90 percent of the girls here are from English-speaking families, from the U.S., Britain or South Africa. Those countries have a lot of awareness about women's sport in general, and specifically women's soccer. Ra'anana has a pretty large native English-speaking population and that's why it's caught on here. The challenge is to get girls from native Israeli families not to see soccer as something strange. After all, it's already caught on all over the world."

Yael Vitori, 17, the youth team's goalkeeper, is actually from a veteran Israeli family and has been playing since grade four. "I always liked soccer," she says between fielding shots during the final training session of the season. "We [the youth team], unlike the girls, didn't win the championship this season, but in any case I'm ending the season with a feeling of disappointment that it's all over. For me, it's a problem not to play soccer all summer long."

Vitori says she is a fan of Maccabi Haifa goalkeeper Nir Davidovich, "but around the world follows mostly the outfield players. Not all the girls here watch a lot of soccer on television, but they all really like the game. You gotta love the sport to be part of it. It's not easy."

Not accessable to girls

Coach Chvoinik says "many girls here usually change out of their soccer kit after we get off the bus coming back from away games. They're worried that other kids they know will find out they play soccer."

Vitori explains: "[Israeli] society still does not welcome the idea that we play soccer. For years I've been hearing amazement and criticism from all kinds of people, including close friends. People don't understand why we play a men's sport."

Is soccer really a male sport?

"There is something in that," responds Vitori, "just like dance is perceived as a female sport. Soccer is physical and aggressive, and it's primarily a sport boys like. That's why people see something masculine in it, but today it's obvious the situation has changed."

Gur says that "in the U.S. female soccer players are just as famous as men; maybe even more so. I grew up a fan of Mia Hamm [a former star of the U.S. national team] and many boys I knew also were fans of hers."

In Israel there is soccer player Silvi Jan, a striker on the national team for the past two decades who's scored over 1,000 goals during her career, but if she would walk down the street, hardly anybody would recognize her. That's why we don't do this for the publicity," explains Vitori. "We just really love the game."

Dorothy Gur, who in addition to being a yoga instructor also competed in karate as a youth, thinks "it's hard to imagine a more terrific game for kids - and, of course, for girls - than soccer. It's a non-violent sport. It's a team sport. You are totally devoted and running constantly. The moves are fun. That's why I think it's a real shame that this sport is not accessible to many more Israeli girls."

Few models to emulate

There were only 13 adult women's soccer teams active in Israel this past season, eight in the top league and five in the second tier. A star player earns around NIS 3,000-4,000 a month, and the players see this "primarily as a hobby and sort of second job." The national team still does not have a major international victory to its credit.

One of the teams in the top women's league is Bnot Sakhnin, and two of its players are on the national squad. The national champion is Asa Tel Aviv and its sworn rival is Maccabi Holon.

Omrit Yanilov Eden, the director of Athena, the Ministry of Culture and Sport's national women's sports council, claims "if every soccer club was obligated to set up teams for girls and teenage girls, as is the case in most European countries, then the situation here would be very different. There have already been High Court of Justice rulings regarding equal allocations for men's and women's sports, but unfortunately they are still very far from being implemented in practice."

Yanilov Eden adds that "the problem is not just with soccer, but with just about every sport. Firstly, Israel has a very poor sports culture. There are only 67,000 people registered as active sportsmen, which is less than one percent of the population. In other countries it is at least 20 percent. Among the active sportspeople, only 13-14 percent are women; in Germany for example, at least 40 percent are women. Still, over the past five years there has been a 70 percent increase in the number of active sportswomen. There has been a change in approach, but our goal is to strengthen it much more."

Athena has an annual budget of NIS 10 million for the next eight years, but it is doubtful this sum will suffice for a campaign to lift the cultural barriers still preventing so many women, mainly young women, from engaging in sport.

"Many times the barrier originates with the women themselves, mothers or girls who think that engaging in sport will make their bodies unfeminine," says Yanilov Eden. "There are also very few sportswomen who could be role models for young girls. The media focuses less on women's sports. However, what is really lacking is an effort to highlight the values entailed in sports and its contribution. Beyond the enjoyment, there is education, teamwork, communication, improved self-confidence, leadership skills and many more things that sport can give to anyone who participates, and not just to women."

When you visit the Ra'anana training field and watch around 45 girls of all ages playing soccer and enjoying it so much, you realize that perhaps the challenge is not all that complicated after all.

"What is soccer really?" asks Keren Gur, and then responds: "It's a whole lot of fun. So for me there isn't even a question of whether I'll carry on or not. That's also why I don't understand why so few girls in Israel play. In my eighth-grade class there's just one other girl, but when I look at the younger grades, I see there are more girls. That's encouraging."

Less encouraging is that now the summer break starts, there will hardly be any games or practices. But Gur does not plan to give up soccer, "even if that means I'll have to train and play alone."

AP
Nir Keidar