Foreign Athletes in Israeli Sports, The History

Before 1978, Israel was just like any 30 year old – trying to prove it can still run with the young guns and compete on the court, but ultimately ending up winded on the sidelines. That year, legislature was passed allowing foreign athletes to join the Israel Ligat HaAl (the Israel Basketball Super League) and before the foreigners could say “Shalom” Maccabi Tel Aviv was rolling in the Euroleague.

Once the Israeli programs opened their doors to the world, sports in the start up nation would be changed forever. Where would Israeli soccer, handball or volleyball be if the basketball league hadn’t blazed the trail for foreign athletes to make a name for themselves in the Holy Land?

Well, this is where it gets interesting. Despite the fact that Israeli basketball became a world game back in ’78, Israeli soccer, the second (or first, depending on how you look at it) sport in the country only began accepting foreigners in 1991. For the two most famous Israeli sports teams – Maccabi Tel Aviv [basketball] and Maccabi Tel Aviv [soccer] – the decision of adding foreigners to their rosters is undoubtedly ‘A Tale of Two Cities’… in the same city.

The Maccabi Basketball team that just won the Euroleague currently employs, and was immeasurably aided by, seven foreign players – half of its entire roster. Maccabi Soccer has suited up a grand total of twelve foreigners. EVER.

Why is there such a difference? Well, just off the top of my head – Jews are not generally built to compete with the height and athleticism required for pro basketball, whereas soccer more geared towards our build as a nation. Even more practically, with the help of a few foreign ballers, Maccabi Basketball could climb over that wall and compete with the best in Europe. On the other hand, Maccabi Soccer would need a lot more than the 5 permitted foreign players in order to make a name for itself on the world soccer stage, which is much more competitive, relative to the Euroleague.

In 1991, soccer and basketball were Israel’s two primary sports, and it’s interesting to see how each went down a different path in regards to foreign players. However, with all of the success that Maccabi Basketball has enjoyed over the years Maccabi Soccer has stuck to the native players, and had local success, but not much on the European scene. And despite all of the trophies and accolades that Maccabi Basketball has earned, many believe that the club and the league in general should have adopted a game plan similar to their soccer counterparts.

An article published in Globes in January 2013 explains the disdain that many Israeli basketball players feel about the foreign players. According to the statistics last winter, foreign players in the Israeli Super League were getting about 80% of the playing time on the court.

Their complaint does hold some weight, considering the number of foreign ballers who have traveled overseas for their craft. Keep in mind that the United States has hundreds of colleges each having their own basketball team, while only 60 total players are drafted into the NBA each year. That 60 includes a number of international players as well.

According to, over the past 5 seasons, 165 (!) American-born players have played in Israel. That’s not the total of foreign players, that’s the total from the United States alone. You can see how the native Israelis would start to get ticked off.

The harsh reality is that these foreign players have to emigrate overseas to find playing time and it comes at the expense of the native players. Not only that, but the true reality is that the majority of these sports imports are much more talented than the “home ballers” and are a key factor in the success of their newfound clubs. It’s no surprise that arguably the best talent on Maccabi Basketball’s championship roster belonged to the foreign players.

While bringing in foreign talent may be the solution in basketball (and possibly an inevitable situation for soccer), there are new sports budding in the holy land where foreign athletes could be the key to a tremendous development of sport in Israel.

It’s no longer the 70s or 90s – in 2014, sports that many would never have imagined being played in Israel are now becoming an essential part of Israel’s culture. It’s all part of the westernization of Israel, and the influx of North Americans into the ever-changing Israeli population.

American Football in Israel, or simply known as the AFI, has been around for years in the Jewish State promoting the development of football, whether you have heard about it or not. The Israel Football League (IFL) grows each year in size and in its talent level, and the Israel national flag football teams are favorites to win the World Championships this summer in Jerusalem. Let’s not forget about Israel Lacrosse, which is competing in June at the World Lacrosse Championships in Denver, USA and is bringing along a number of very talented native Israeli lacrosse players. Bet you didn’t know about that either.

While basketball may be benefitting from foreign athletes at the expense of native players, there are other sports in Israel that are thriving from the import of these global athletes. In the coming weeks, I will be examining the impact of American football players and the continued evolution of the IFL, and the efforts of American lacrosse players and their ongoing effort to build the sport in Israel from the ground up.

These two sports may be rooted in American sports culture, but in Israel they are only starting to sprout. But as we’ve seen from Maccabi basketball’s rise to glory since 1978, a few foreign athletes can go a long way.

About the Author
Adam Davis was born in Toronto, Canada and moved to Israel after high school. After completing yeshiva and serving in the IDF, he studied at Bar Ilan University. A life-long sports fan, Adam hopes to help make sports a bigger part of Israeli culture.