American Football in Israel: Kraft Family Israel Football League (IFL)

American Football International had the opportunity to chat with Betzalel Friedman, Commissioner of the Israeli Football League (IFL).

The Israel Football League was founded in the summer of 2005 by a group of Israelis who wanted to play tackle American Football in their home country. In 2007, the league began fully equipped play under the umbrella of American Football in Israel (AFI), and Israel Bowl I was held in 2008. AFI is a non-profit association, which in spring of 2004 was granted official recognition as the sport’s governing body in Israel by the Ministry of Education’s Sports Authority. The AFI is a member of the International Federation of American Football (IFAF) and the league title sponsor is the New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and his family.

The IFL just released their 2013-14 schedule and 11 teams will return to compete to reach Israel Bowl VII. See the bottom for the full 2013 standings and links to the full schedule can be found at: IFL 2013-2014.

IFL teams cover logo

The goal of this Q&A with Mr. Friedman is to learn about American Football in Israel as well explore some of the challenges faced by the burgeoning league.

  1. Hello  Betzalel! What is the the Kraft Family Israeli Football League?
    The Kraft Family Israeli Football League is a 7-year-old, 11 team league with teams throughout Israel. As we just started, we still play 8-man football, but plan on moving to 11-man in the next few years. As you can see from the name, the league is sponsored by New England Patriots owner Mr. Robert Kraft. His late wife Myra (of blessed memory) was also important in supporting the league. We pride ourselves in having players of all religions and walks of life: Orthodox Jews, secular Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

    photo credit: Shmuel Weisfeld

    New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft with IFL in 2008
    photo credit: Shmuel Weisfeld

  2. Tell us a little about yourself and your role in your organizations.
    I am the Commissioner of the league and the only person in the league paid to deal with football full time. I previously spent time as an officer in the military and serve (like many of our players) in the IDF reserves.
  3. When and how was your team/organization formed?
    Our first full, padded season was in 2007. Some people who had been playing pickup ball in the park teamed up with the flag football organization, and then someone bumped in to Mr. Kraft in a hotel in Jerusalem and the rest is history. The goal is to spread and teach the great game of football in Israel.
  4. How many active athletes/players are in your organization?
    There are approximately 400 players in our league, not including the youth players or the flag leagues.
  5. How many teams/levels of competition are there in your organization?
    There is one adult league, one youth league (14-17) and two pee-wee teams.
  6. What are some of the challenges your organization has faced?
    Our challenges our many – we don’t get funding from the government and most Israelis’ reaction when they hear of our league is: “What? There’s football in Israel?”. So I guess lack of funding and lack of publicity are big ones. Another big challenge is coaching. The teams don’t have money to pay coaches, and so many of the coaches have very little football knowledge, and are just the people good enough to 
  7. How do your countries law and customs affect your ability to development American Football?
    Unlike other sports in Israel (soccer, the number one sport, plays it’s games on the Sabbath, we don’t conduct league games on the Sabbath, so all games are either Thursday night, Friday morning or Saturday night (after nightfall). 
  8. Are there many NFL & NCAA American Football fans in Israel? If so, what teams or schools? How did they learn about American Football?
    There are a lot of American immigrants, so they all follow whatever teams they followed in the States (yours truly is from Indianapolis and an avid Colts fan). Israelis often pick a team based in the first game they ever saw on TV or based on their favorite player.
  9. Have you established a schedule? Who do you play and when does your season begin and end?
    We’re still working on the final schedule but our season runs from November until March and the finals take place in April.
  10. Do your teams have access to the proper equipment and facilities?IFL Judean Rebels
    Players have to buy their own equipment and it’s either very expensive here or you bring it in from the States. Most teams practice either in public parks or pay a fortune for practice time.
  11. How do you finance the expenses related to operating your team?
    Mr. Kraft gives a generous donation and every team has to pay a participation fee for the league, which they usually financed by finding a sponsor or two.
  12. What are you organization’s short-term (1-3 years) and long-term (3+ years) goals?
    We plan on growing to 11-man football in the next 2-4 years, and would like to see at least one more team join the league by then. We’d like to see football become the 3rd most popular sport in Israel, after soccer and basketball.
  13. Can you share an interesting cultural experience you’ve had in your country while trying to explain what American Football is and how it is played?
    In grade school, I once brought a football to school to try and teach some classmates, but they just yelled: “Football!” and proceeded to have a mass brawl around the ball…
  14. What are events/projects are in the immediate future for your teams and league?
    Community involvement is very important to us. Our team go to hospitals or to pack packages for needy people or help new immigrants.
  15. Are there any other things you’d like to let the world know about American Football in Israel and the IFL?
    We’re always looking for new sponsors and new ways to improve and advance. We’re at the very beginning and the sky is the limit!

If you would like to learn more about the Israeli Football League or support their endeavor to bring American Football to Israel please email Betzalel Friedman or visit their site and social media pages listed below.

John McKeon is a former professional and collegiate American Football player and coach now living and working in New York. His goal is to spread news, information, and opinion on the global growth of the sport he loves.