After arriving in Marco Polo Airport in Venice, Italy, Yonah Mishaan and I went to get our rented 9-seater Fiat van, which the coach calls our Mercava tank. We proceeded to drive to the host city of Lignano Sabbiadoro, located about an hour’s drive away. Thanks to the Israeli-invented Waze GPS, our journey was easy.
Before arriving at our hotel, I spotted a soccer stadium and we soon realized that this was “Stadio G. Teghil” where our football games would be played in the coming days. Italian football officials were on the field, placing all the markings for the gridiron. We were greeted warmly by our Italian friends who we had gotten to know at previous football events organized by the International Federation of American football. They graciously showed us the Israeli team locker room that had already been inspected by our Israeli security personnel.
Upon reaching Hotel Falcon, Yonah and I met the Israeli cooks who arrived a day earlier to prepare kosher food for our team. Feeding 45 football players and 18 support staff is a daunting task, when all of the food is kosher. Only about a third of our team are observant, but our entire team, including non-Jewish players and coaches, will eat kosher in Italy. We have many observant players and the Israel American Football Federation is the only sports federation in the country that will not play on Shabbat, and observes Jewish dietary laws.
In the evening, Yonah and I visited the beautiful coastal town of Lignano Sabbiadoro, which is not usually on the tourist agenda of most Israeli visitors.
Thursday morning, we headed to meet the rest of the team, back at the Venice airport, where a bus was waiting to bring the full contingent to the hotel. Loading up the players, each carrying their football gear, reminded me of mobilizing a reserve IDF platoon. Each player carried a duffle bag, with his helmet, shoulder pads, cleats and uniform. They looked grim and determined for the battle ahead.
The police escort was a sobering reminder that Israeli teams require protection. It also means that speed limits did not apply and the 120 kilometer trip took under an hour. We checked the players into the hotel and the next thing on the agenda was feeding these always hungry, over-sized men.
After a bit of rest, the team was back on the bus, heading to visit the stadium. The players waded into the 3,000-seat ballpark looking like pilgrims entering the Promised Land. They had trained hard for the past six months and the moment of arrival had finally come. The players gathered around Coach Mishaan and his words were a mixture of football pep talk and Zionist fervor. Football wisdom and Jabotinsky. He spoke to a group of very strong Israeli men responsible for carrying the national rebirth and the spirit of the fighting Jew to the gridiron.
After leaving the stadium, we went to a separate field for a two-hour workout, where the coaching staff went over all the plays and strategies that would be needed the next day when they took the field against Italy.
Can Israel defeat the Italians? Conventional wisdom says no. Italy is the number one seed in the tournament and Israel is 8th and last. Italy has several leagues and decades of experience in American football, while Israel has only 8 teams and has played tackle football for a mere nine years. Italy has the home-field advantage, with about 2,000 fans expected to cheer them on while only about 30 Israeli friends and family members made the trip.
But there is a football saying that says, “on any given Sunday.” The meaning is that the score begins 0-0. Team Israel made the trip intending to beat Italy and go on and win the tournament. Win or lose they intend to leave it all on the field and and carry the flag proudly.