Over the weekend, Israel’s under U17 boys’ national flag football team won gold at the 2023 International Federation of American Football (IFAF) European Junior Flag Football Championships at the Fattoria La Principina in Grossetto, Italy. More than 400 young athletes from 12 nations competed during the three-day tournament, at the U17 and U15 levels.
Israel took the title with a 34-13 win over Serbia, despite electing to forfeit a game during the first round of the tournament as it was scheduled to take place on Shabbat.
Israel’s girl’s U17 team made it to the semi-finals of their bracket, but failed to medal at the event.
American Football in Israel (AFI) President Steve Leibowitz, who attended the tournament, was overjoyed at the first place finish, telling JNS that the victory was a long time coming.
“The quest for a gold medal in IFAF Flag Football has been ongoing for 15 years, and Team Israel finally reached the top of the podium,” said Leibowitz.
“In recent years with the help of the Kraft Family and Ayelet non-Olympic Sports Federation we invested heavily in our youth programs. We see that it paid off. With Flag Football well positioned for inclusion in 2028 LA Olympics we are already working to get our teams there. This was a sign that we are moving in the right direction.”
Leibowitz said he was confident the squad would be OK, even though they forfeited a game, but he would lobby for games not be scheduled for Shabbat in future tournaments.
“The fact that the boys won gold despite forfeiting the Shabbat game was only because they were far stronger than other teams. Our girls were strong enough to reach the final four but the forfeit knocked them out. We will continue to push for no Shabbat games for Team Israel. We are proud that unlike every other sport federation in Israel our policy is to do all within our power to include religious players,” he said.
Following the championship win, ecstatic head coach Gideon Reiz said, “I’m speechless. It’s an honor and a privilege to be a part of this.” He added, “We have an amazing group of guys and an amazing future; I’m looking forward to it. It’s only going to get better, and we appreciate the Kraft Family for everything they have done for us. We couldn’t have been here without them.”
Taking a break from celebrating with teammates, starting quarterback Mati Bednarsh said confidently, “I never had any doubts, I had faith, and I knew we were going to win this.”
Bednarsh added that he thought the Shabbat forfeit actually contributed to the victory, almost as if the heavens assisted with the win.
“If you are shomer Shabbat [Sabbath observant], and forfeit a game, there is no way you’re not winning, directly attributing the victory to God. “Everything that we have is from him,” he said.
Leibowitz said that next up on the flag football calendar internationally is the men’s and women’s world championships in Helsinki, Finland, in September 2024. The teams who finish at the top of the standings at that event will meet at the most prestigious event in the sport—the World Games, set for 2025 in Beijing, China.
On a local level, the various men’s and women’s flag leagues are set to begin their respective seasons in October, after the Jewish holidays, with games held at the Kraft Family Sports Campus in Jerusalem.