By Tia Goldenberg, Associated Press
PETAH TIKVA, Israel (AP) — There were no cheerleaders, tailgaters and not that many spectators. The gridiron was marked over a baseball diamond, and the home side scored one touchdown while conceding seven.
As debuts go, however, Israel's first American football international on Thursday in Petah Tikva was considered a success.
Israel lost 49-6 to Maranatha Baptist Bible College Crusaders from Watertown, Wis., a Division III team. But local enthusiasts were merely happy to see a national team formed and playing, five years after launching a local league.
Uriel Sturm, the commissioner of the 10-team amateur league, says Israelis are increasingly showing interest in the sport. Last year's Israel Bowl attracted more than 1,000 fans and was broadcast live on an Israeli sports channel.
"The tailgating, the cheerleading, that whole rah-rah atmosphere is very much a part of football culture. We're hopefully building towards that," said Sturm, originally from Toronto. He also was the announcer for the game.
Most members of the 500-strong crowd that ringed the field were friends and relatives of the players.
"I wouldn't have heard of the sport were it not for my son," said Smadar Yeshurun, whose son Shahar plays linebacker.
The crowd, some wearing yarmulkas and jerseys, cheered wildly in a mix of Hebrew and English as kosher wings and fries were sold nearby.
At halftime, children lobbed around footballs as fans discussed the plays. Arthur Boltaxa spoke to a friend in Hebrew spliced with the English words "down," "yard" and "touchdown" because, he said, they don't yet exist in Hebrew.
Just as Israelis might lack enthusiasm for American football, few Jews have played professionally in the NFL. Notably, Denver Broncos long-snapper David Binn is Jewish. Others, such as Hall of Fame LB Andre Tippett, converted to Judaism.
But the Jewish connection has helped raise funds for the fledgling league, with New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft donating $70,000 every year to help support it. A field in Jerusalem which hosts many of the league's games is named after him.
Many of the league's players are originally Americans, and some picked up a football only since the league's establishment. In contrast, most of Maranatha's 27 players grew up around a gridiron.
The local league typically plays eight-a-side on a 60-yard field, but Thursday's game was a regulation 11 versus 11 on a makeshift 100-yard field, which proved to be as much of a challenge for Israel as was the opposition.
Maranatha's first touchdown came two minutes in. Israel's only reply came off a 76-yard pass at the start of the second quarter.
Drawing on the little he said he knew about Israelis before visiting, Maranatha captain Robert O'Brien said he saw a place for American football in Israel because of the country's decades of conflict and its compulsory military service.
"These people are all about contact, they are all about aggressiveness," he said, "so football fits right into their culture."