When Team Israel takes the field Sunday, October 6, at Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem, against Team Belgium in Group B of the IFAF 2020 European Championship qualification round, Israeli head coach Jay Hoffman is aware of the implications for his team and for the sport itself in Israel.
Team Israel defeated Turkey in the first game of Group B action last month and a win over a seasoned Belgian Barbarians team. Although Belgium lost to Ireland in a friendly game in early September, this is a veteran squad, experienced in international competition. The Belgians have been probably the busiest national team in Europe over the past five years.
American Football International asked Hoffman about the importance of this game and his team’s prospects.
AFI: You opened your qualifying round with a big win over Turkey last month. Tomorrow’ game has huge implications for Israel. How do you feel about your chances?
Hoffman: I am confident that we have the athleticism to compete. However, without having the ability to share game films we are competing for the most part against an unknown opponent. That being said, the importance of this game is recognized by all of our players – to be part of the first ever international football game held in Israel is huge, and the importance of playing well in front of our fans, family and the country creates a tremendous motivation and excitement. If we can channel and control that energy we will be fine.
AFI: Against Turkey, you built a solid lead and then had to hold on as Turkey surged back. Are you concerned about that kind of situation in this game?
Hoffman: We had the chance to end the game early, and we made a few mistakes that cost us and almost cost us the game. Those mistakes, both on coaching decisions and player performance, were correctable and won’t happen again. The benefit of having that game under our belt and learning from it, without it having cost us a victory, is huge. Keep in mind that unlike a lot of teams that we are competing against we did not have any “friendly games” leading to our game against Turkey. So, that game was the first chance we had to compete against an opponent. We should not have those issues against Belgium.
AFI: How much do you know about the Belgian Barbarians?
Hoffman: Little, and that obviously is a concern.
AFI: You have a strong running game as does Team Ireland who beat the Belgians last month. Will you stick to that tomorrow?
Hoffman: We were successful running the ball against Turkey. Obviously, that is a strong area of ours, depending upon what Belgium does to defend this we will adjust accordingly. I like the weapons that we have on offense and our ability to adapt to different scenarios.
AFI: Do you have any major roster changes from the game against Turkey?
Hoffman: One of our starting receivers was unable to play against Turkey due to military commitments. He will be back against Belgium and should play a major role for us. He also handles our kicking – so his return is a big plus for us.
AFI: How much would a win in this game mean for football in Israel?
Hoffman: I cannot overstate how important this game is for moving football up the ladder in this country. I believe that the sport culture in Israel is ready to embrace the game, simply there is a lack of understanding the rules. With a victory against another International opponent in Israel will cause people to notice and have the patience to learn how football can play an important role in society. Values such as teamwork, discipline and hard word are the benefits from football that society in general can benefit from, especially one that has mandatory military service. The other benefit from the success of football in Israel would be the opportunity to show how this “melting pot” group of athletes and coaches (secular Jews, religious Jews, Israeli Arabs and Christians) can bond to create a unified team with one goal – competing for the Israeli Flag as one nation. Hopefully, people will see this and understand how the beauty of sport, especially this sport that is so physical in nature, can transcend all barriers and allow people from various walks of life to succeed together!
In my experience as a player and a coach I have found that the sport of football, that requires such commitment and physicality, to allow players to appreciate their teammates and respect other’s values and perspectives, allows for conversation to overcome issues.