After three days of intense competition under a scorching Middle Eastern sun, European flag-football powerhouse Denmark emerged as the men’s champion, winning its sixth overall title, while the underdog women from Spain took their first-ever gold at the 2019 Flag Football European Championship held this past weekend in Jerusalem.

Israel was actually chosen as the host country for the World Flag Football Championship in 2014, but as a result of “Operation Protective Edge” in the Gaza Strip, the venue was changed to Italy at the last minute.

According to Steve Leibowitz, president of American Football in Israel (AFI), who founded the organization with his longtime friend Danny Gewirtz more than 25 years ago, this was the largest international team sport competition ever held in Jerusalem. The AFI hosted the event under the auspices of the International Federation of American Football (IFAF).

Over the course of three days, it was a flag-football fan’s dream as 21 teams and more than 400 players, dressed in their country’s colors, took to the field from morning till evening on Thursday, Friday and Sunday at the Kraft Family Sports Campus. (In respect for the Jewish Sabbath, no games were held on Saturday.)

Israel’s men’s team started the tournament on fire, winning four out of their first five games on Thursday and Friday, and taking first place in the Group “A” bracket. Their most exciting victory was an upset win over world No. 2 Austria, 32-26, and came on a “Hail Mary” pass resulting in a touchdown on the last play of the game.

However, after earning an automatic place in the semifinals, Israel fell in a nail-biter to Italy, 56-55 on Sunday morning, and then ran out of steam in the bronze-medal game, losing to France 56-49 to finish the tournament in fourth place.

The French quarterback prepares to throw downfield. Photo by Shannon Nuszen.

The Israeli women got off to a promising 2-0 start on Thursday before falling 21-12 to Denmark on Friday. But after defeating France 14-7, the women finished the round with a 3-1 record, earning them second place in the Group “B” bracket and a “wild card” playoff berth for the championship on Sunday.

While the Israeli women put up a strong fight on Sunday morning, they ended up falling to the eventual champions Spain 20-12, thus knocking them out of medal contention. In the battle for fifth place, the Israeli team came up short 27-18 to France.

On the men’s side, Denmark won their championship with a comfortable 52-35 victory over Italy in the finals, while the Spanish women won their title defeating Great Britain in the finals 28-14.

A player from Great Britain’s women’s team prepares to catch a pass. Photo by Shannon Nuszen.

‘We knew it was going to be a fight’

Betzalel Friedman, commissioner of the Kraft Family Israel Football League (tackle league), told JNS that he’s sure both Israel’s men’s and women’s teams are disappointed that they didn’t earn a trip to the medals’ podium. He added that in regard to the men’s squad, “the offense did great; we saw a lot of scoring. Unfortunately, you have to allow fewer points than you score,” he said, referring to the defense.

Leibowitz said he had high hopes for both teams, acknowledging that “when the Israeli men’s and women’s teams lost on Sunday, I shed some tears. But then you get over it, and you get ready for the next time.”

He said that Israel is already looking forward to the 2020 world championships to be held in Copenhagen.

Following the championship games, athletes from all countries took the field for the trophies and medal ceremonies. The trophies presented were replicas of the Vince Lombardi Trophy presented annually to the winning team in the NFL’s Super Bowl.

While Israel’s men’s team didn’t medal, it did receive some consolation when longtime AFI football player Dani Eastman was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player. Some argue that Eastman, who was also voted MVP following the 2014 World Championship, is the greatest Israeli football player to ever lace up the cleats.

Men’s tournament MVP Dani Eastman (left) with IFAF tournament director Martin Cockerill. Credit: Courtesy of AFI.

On the women’s side, Great Britain’s top wide receiver Marta Mathews was selected for MVP honors.

Olga Sotillo, a 16-year-old wide receiver for the Spanish women’s champions, told JNS a few minutes after their victory, “This is amazing. It’s a dream come true.” She was also happy that her team had a day off during the tournament to explore Israel, sharing that they visited the Dead Sea on Saturday.

The Spanish women’s defensive coordinator (coach) Raul Saavedra said his team didn’t expect to win gold in the tournament. He told JNS, “We knew it was going to be a fight, especially after we lost to Great Britain during the group phase.” But he added that his team was up late Saturday night coming up with a game plan should they face the Brits again in the finals.

Rasmus Brandt, a wide receiver for Denmark, spoke to JNS as the song “We are the Champions” was blasting in the background. He noted that this is his fourth European gold with the team, adding that “this is the best feeling in the world.” Some fans even remarked that Brandt’s large frame and soft hands reminded them of former New England Patriots all-pro tight end Rob Gronkowski, suggesting that he try out for Gronkowski’s old spot on the team.

IFAF tournament director Martin Cockerill, who flew in from Great Britain for the event, gave JNS his take on the tournament. “It was absolutely fantastic,” he said. “The hosts have been really, really good. Next year’s world championship will have a lot to live up to because this has been a superb event.”

Cockerill, in Israel for the first time, said it was a beautiful country and that he truly enjoyed it, summing the entire experience up as “just fantastic.”

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