Soccer Prodigy, but Not Good Enough for the IDF

Michal Been plays soccer for a college in Connecticut, but was told the Israeli army's exemption quota for outstanding athletes was full and she must be drafted. Now she's fighting back through Facebook.

When Michal Been was a child, long before she was aware of the Sports Administration and its bureaucracy regarding military service deferral, she used to go out to the yard in her home in Tzur Yigal together with her elder brother and kick a ball. She played with the boys until she was 13, and two years later joined the Maccabi Hadera girls' team. At the end of 11th grade she flew to the United States, attended several college soccer camps and received warm recommendations from the coaches. After uploading a clip to YouTube she was accepted by the Central Connecticut State University and began living her childhood dream.

"Since I was nine I knew I wanted to be a soccer player and told my parents I would play for an American college," 18-year-old Been recalls. "Soccer has always been my first priority. I gave up so much for the game – going out, field trips with my classmates and trips abroad – because I know that nothing in the world satisfies me as much as getting on the pitch and playing. I joined the college six months ago and am enjoying every second. At the first practice I looked around and felt as if I had joined Barcelona. This is an experience I simply couldn't have in Israel."

Been overcame her yearning for her mother's dishes, the difficulty of studying psychology in English and a nagging injury – which she picked up when playing for the Under-19 national team – and started to face the real deal.

"Soccer here is much faster and more physical, while in Israel we focus more on technique," she says. "Since I'm not that physical I use my other advantages to get past my player and set up a goal. The American girls are strong and fast, but I run the game and create moves."

Been has since worked on her physique and two weeks ago returned to the field having overcome her injury, but then she received a message from the Israel Defense Forces ordering her to return to Israel for military service. The reason: The quota for outstanding athletes whose military service is deferred – no more than 12 athletes – has already been filled.

"I'm eligible according to all the criteria, and as far as I'm concerned there's absolutely no reason I wasn't awarded the status," Been says, adding that "I joined the college before the army because if I had stayed in Israel it would mean three years of zero progress, one year because of my injury and two more because of the IDF service. My request was rejected a week before I flew to the U.S., and ever since my parents have been constantly in touch with the army and the Culture and Sports Ministry's Sports Administration. We succeeded twice in postponing my draft for four months, but last week we received a letter from the IDF saying that there would be no more delays and I would have to be drafted on April 18.

"I want to pursue my dream. For the last eight months we've tried to do it quietly, but now we have no choice but to appeal to the media. I talked to my family and then began writing my story."

Been posted a message on her Facebook page that attracted endless comments, mostly favorable, and was surprised by its effect and the support she received. "Once, when I got into a taxi or some guy was interested in dating me and I would say, 'I play soccer,' there was always this strange look meaning 'why would you do that?' Of course it motivated me to prove that I can remain feminine and still play the game. In high school I had to prove that I'm 'normal' and everything's fine with me. It's hard to mature and develop as a woman and play soccer at the same time. People used to say to me, 'you're a woman, go to the kitchen," but now things have changed. When I shared my story on Facebook there were no such comments, and that was really important for me."

After all she's been through, Been has no intention of giving in to the establishment.

"The 'outstanding athlete' status doesn't help me," she stresses. "With all due respect, the level of woman's soccer in Israel isn't high enough for me, or for other girls with exceptional talent. It's too amateurish, lacking budgets or investment and there's nowhere to aim for. At the age of 17 I reached the top in Israel, and it's simply an absurd situation. There's no reason the quota is limited to 12 athletes. If I'm recruited to the IDF next month, I'll arrive every morning at the office, fill out some forms until noon and go home. Does the IDF really need me now? I really don't believe it will make any difference to anyone if I do my IDF service now or in four years' time."

Been aims her criticism at the IDF and the Sports Administration: "It's sad to see how they give up on athletes. It's frustrating to know that there are talented athletes who can progress and improve Israeli sports, but the bodies responsible for this simply aren't doing their jobs. It's hard and painful to realize that I train every day, eat according to a strict diet, run, work with weights, take myself to the limit, and then because of some bureaucracy have to put it all on hold. It makes me doubt the state institutions and question whether things should be run this way. Still, the bottom line is that I will do whatever the IDF finally decides."

The IDF spokesman's office replied: "The future draftee was recognized as an outstanding athlete in July 2012, and it was decided to defer her service in order to reexamine her status. It is important to understand that the IDF does not determine this status but only approves the Sports Administration's recommendations. A special committee of the Sports Administration will convene this week."

The Culture and Sports Ministry responded: "Michal is an extremely talented athlete and undoubtedly one of the most promising in her field, but she hasn't been included in the outstanding athletes' quota, which is limited by the IDF to 12 every year. It should be noted that the 12 athletes are selected according to their achievements at the time the request is submitted, and despite her noteworthy achievements there were still 12 athletes who were deemed more worthy. If, for some reason, one of the other candidates will not make use of his status, we will reconsider her status. We must stress that the ministry has recently contacted the IDF and requested to enlarge the quota, since we believe that more athletes should be given a chance to realize their potential."

From Michal Been's Facebook page