For the Love of the Gameby Peter Talhame February 1, 2015
Here in the U.S., despite not owning the title “America’s Pass Time,” football is the sport so intrinsic to our culture that from late August onward, our nation’s obsession with this complicated game rises until it culminates into one of the world’s largest televised events. Now consider Israel. Did you know there are 600 men who may actually take the game even more seriously than the American men and women who literally plan their lives around their favorite sport? In the documentary “Touchdown Israel: Tackle Football in the Holyland,” director Paul Hirschberger traces the origins of tackle football in Israel by following a handful of the sometimes larger than life players and coaches of the Israeli Football League (IFL).
Hirschberger’s film explores how the IFL found its way into its current iteration, with the help of olim Steve Leibowitz. In 1988, tired of missing the sports he grew used to in his American childhood, Leibowitz helped form a popular touch league and eventually became involved with Ofri Becker, the founder of the IFL, a small tackle league that played without helmets. In 2007, after members of both leagues brainstormed on the future of the sport in Israel, the IFL was reborn as a four team league complete with helmets, pads, coaches, and referees. With it’s tactical appeal and ability to serve as a positive outlet for pent-up Israeli aggression, the league has swiftly expanded to 11 teams, with more than 600 players on their roster.
Despite paying for their own equipment, often dressing for games right on the sidelines of torn-up poorly-lit surfaces, and playing through injuries, it is clear that every single player featured is fully committed to the sport and the brotherhood found within their teams. From the controversial Judean Rebels, a team of West Bank settlers; to the recently integrated Jaffa Sabres whose Jewish and Arab athletes have found unlikely friendships that transcend religion and politics; to the Northern Stars, one of the newest teams just off of the border of Lebanon whose multi-ethnic members are all awkwardly learning the game together; with each team we meet, the audience is treated to a new cast of charismatic and memorable characters.
While the documentary mostly chronicles the progress of the growing league – a fair portion of its hour-plus runtime is dedicated to on-field footage – what’s at the heart of the film is the passion and dedication that the game has ignited in a small but strong minority of football lovers in Israel. Hirschberger weaves in the individual realizations by some of his focal subjects that their ideas of faith and tradition are not in conflict with the camaraderie that can be experienced between sportsmen who share a common bond regardless of their beliefs.
With the IFL sharing a religious breakdown similar to that of the nation itself, “Touchdown Israel” frames the league as a bright microcosm of Israel, proud in the face of adversity, embracing the values of family and friendship, and ultimately with the potential to overcome the differences that separate people.
At times, the documentary’s klezmer and jazz-riff heavy sound editing don’t match its tone and a few limitations of the production can be seen in the cinematography, however, neither are enough to diminish the film’s compelling storyline. While any football fan in the U.S. or abroad will enjoy watching the blossoming of the sport as its played in Israel, you don’t need to be a fan to appreciate this warm and engaging documentary.