The Israeli national tackle football team is set to travel to Lignano Sabbiadoro, Italy, to compete in a four-team European Championship Qualifying Tournament next week.
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A contingent of 45 players and 18 coaches, trainers and officials with make the trip. Israel will play against host Italy next Friday. Later in the day, Serbia will face Switzerland at the same venue. On Sunday September 4, the winners of Friday’s contests will vie for the championship, while the losers compete for third place.
The tournament winner will face either Denmark or Sweden next year, and the victor in that game will qualify for the European Championship in 2018, along with the best six teams on the continent. These include Germany, Austria, France and Finland, who have already qualified.
Israel is new to international tackle football. The journey started last year when Team Israel traveled to Madrid and defeated Spain 28-20 to reach the EC Qualifying Tournament.
Playing two games in three days is a challenge for any football team and a full 45-man roster is required. Israel Football Federation President Steve Leibowitz said the organization and financing of such a large team has been a daunting task. “To my knowledge, this is by far the largest Israeli team ever sent abroad in any sport,” he said.
The team is made up of players competing in the eight-team Kraft Family Israel Football League. The head coach is Yonah Mishaan, who was a standout player and coach in the Israel Football League. American coach Eric Cohu is assisting Mishaan and brings years of coaching experience from the United States.
It’s a diverse team that includes many Israeli-born players alongside American immigrants, and Mishaan describes the challenge as formidable. “We have only 10 years’ experience in tackle football, and only one international game under our belts. And we are playing much more experienced teams with larger and stronger leagues to draw players from,” he said.
Seemingly undaunted by the challenge, Mishaan added, “We have very talented and hard-working players, and we are going to Italy determined to win.”
The trip to Italy is a very costly venture, according to the football federation. The team has a series of high-profile sponsors, including New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, Minnesota Vikings co-owner Mark Wilf, hedge fund owner Henry Swieca, and a group of donors affiliated with the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Israel’s success will depend on the performance of top players such as Dani Eastman, Yuval Fenta, Ahmed Abu Gaber and Yaniv Kovalski.
Eastman is a U.S. immigrant who won three straight MVP awards playing for reigning champion Judean Rebels in the IFL and was the MVP in Israel’s victory over Spain; he has been moved from receiver and safety to quarterback.
Fenta, whose parents immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia, is Israel’s top running back. He won two MVP awards in the High School IFL playing for the champion, Kfar Sava Hawks. He was offensive player of the year in 2015 playing for Tel Aviv Pioneers.
A rookie from the village of Kafr Qasem, Abu Gaber is a standout defensive player for Petah Tikva Troopers. He brings exceptional speed and toughness to the defensive line. Kovalski, meanwhile, is considered Israel’s top offensive lineman. He is an all-IFL player for the champion Judean Rebels.