Team Israel went into its European Championship Qualifier against host Italy determined to win. It did not matter that Italy was seeded first in the tournament and Israel was seeded 8th and last. It did not matter to the players and coaches that Italy had a long history in international completion and Israel had but one game prior to this one. As the team headed on to the field in Lignano Sabbiadoro, there was a mood of confidence and determination.
We stood proudly and with quite a bit of emotion during the pre-game singing of Hatikvah. Just before the opening kickoff we stood with the Italian players and spectators observing a moment of silence for the victims of the recent deadly earthquake in Italy. From the opening whistle we were ready to rumble and show the football world that tiny Israel is a force to contend with.
From the opening kickoff and until halftime Israel played with intensity, skill and a whole lot of heart. QB Dani Eastman scrambled for first downs. Running backs Yuval Fenta and Ariel Hoffman ran hard and the offensive line held its own. When the Italians got the ball they were able to probe the Israeli defense and move the ball up field until they connected with a long pass into the end zone from QB Tommaso Monardi to Michele Marchini,
Down 7-0, Israel came back and Gal Masika hit a 43 yard field goal to make it 7-3. The end of the first quarter and the start of the second were dominated by Israel which took a 10-7 lead on the strength of a touchdown pass from Eastman to Jonathan Curran. It seemed that Israel could take that lead into halftime but some bad breaks gave the Italians an opportunity to tie the score 10-10 with a field goal as the clock ran out.
The game on Sunday will be played at 17:00 Israel time. Shabbat was spent resting sore bodies and mentally preparing for the game still to come.
The Israeli dream of beating Italy quickly vanished in the third quarter as the Italians made adjustments and dominated Israel on both sides of the ball. It was all Italy until the final whistle and Italy won the game 40-10. The dream of reaching the European Championship in 2018 had ended.
The Israeli coaches and players were deeply disappointed, exhausted, beaten and dejected. That mood ended at the start of the traditional Friday night dinner at the hotel when Coach Yonah Mishaan lifted the team’s morale with a pep talk from the heart. With his voice breaking with emotion and hoarse from shouting during the game, Mishaan reminded the players that there was another game to play. Switzerland lost 17-0 to Serbia and Sunday Israel will take on the Swiss for the bronze medal trophy.
After a meeting of team reps on Saturday afternoon the Italian tournament organizer called me aside for a private discussion. After praising the “surprisingly good” effort of the Israel team he said that something had happened during the game game that needed to be clarified. In the trenches between the Italian offensive line and the Israeli defensive lineman he was concerned that Israeli players were offended by the Italians yelling the word “Jew.” He wanted me to know that the Italian word for “down” as in “down, set, hike” is “giu,” and it sounds the same. No offense taken.