Association football, American football, Rugby football, Australian rules football. Absolute majority knows the Association football, with many of them participating in the never ending feud of the two monickers “soccer” vs “football” (Pele, Maradona, Ronaldo/Messi, black and white ball, a lot of rolling on the grass, trendsetting hairstyles).
Most have a vague idea about American football thanks to many US cultural exports such as Hollywood movies and Netflix tv-shows (love for some major armor, shoulder pieces bigger than life and 1980s, iconic helmets and a small weirdly shaped ball they are handling with their hands and rarely actually kicking it).
Some people also know rugby (the ball is still oddly shaped, but bigger, gear replaced by berserk’s holly insanity and an elegant manner of blood spitting, more humility than soccer would ever know, and it prevented a civil war, too).
But very few people outside Australia know that there is an Australian football, too. Whether you credit it to the remoteness of the continent or to no particular colonizing appetite of Aussies to spread the gospel of one true football, to this day this amazing sport seems to be Australia’s best kept secret. And it’s a shame.
To an unprepared spectator that watches a match of Australian football for the first time and lacks references, the game, also known as footy, might even resemble quidditch: from the majestic round shaped field, to whimsical gate poles, to footy’s very own flying technique called marking (no broomsticks involved, which takes it to the next level of sorcery) this game is nothing short of magical.
However, complexity of the plays, crazy athleticism, a combination of elements from virtually every ball game, loads of fun traditions and belonging to the real world make footy an even more exciting sport than quidditch.
The reason we are talking about Australian football on a blog devoted to Israeli sports is because it turns out Israel’s got a new footy club. Not only that but it comes with some legacy, too.
What started a decade ago as a Peace Team project curated by Peres Center for Peace that brought players from Palestine and Israel together to learn to play Australian rules Football together in order to represent the region as a united front in a celebratory tournament in Australian in 2008, has later turned into a Jerusalem Peace Lions team, that went on to represent the country at multiple international AFL events.
Fast forward to May 2018, when a few Jerusalem Peace Lions, including Saad Bahroom and Shir Shalev moved to Tel Aviv, and started weekly meetings in a park to kick the ball, inviting new players to join them.
Shir Shalev was just another Jerusalem Peace Lion until he moved to Tel Aviv and had to assume a managing position in order to coordinate and organize practices. Although Shir says management is not his immediate area of expertise, he has done a good job so far getting club going, raising numbers, and preparing team for the AFL Euro Cup that will take place this October in Cork, Ireland, which team plans to attend in order to represent Israel in the competition.
Helping him to run the operations is not just another former Jerusalem Peace Lion, but one of the longest playing participants of the team, Saad Bahroom. Saad started playing footy when he joined the Peace Team in 2011. He learnt about the project through the Shimon Peres Center, where he currently works, as well as majoring in theater arts at the Tel Aviv University, and coaching soccer (yes, the association football) to the youth. He is also a proud owner of the best hairstyle on the team, too.
The team meets every Monday for a practice. They are sharing a rugby field at the Sportek with Tel Aviv university rugby team. With early sunsets the training doesn’t stop with the sunset despite the field lacking proper lighting. The sessions are intense, high paced, well coordinated and flow seemlessly due to an incredible enthusiasm of the team members and an Aussie expat, sports maven, hard core Carlton Blues, and a man of many more talents, including as it turned out the one of coaching, too, Terry Dehghani.
Moving from Shanghai, China, Melbourne born and bred lawyer lives and breathes sports both in his line of work and in about everything he does in life.
Although Terry grew up playing basketball, he started playing footy only about 6 years ago. But the love for the game started at the age of 5 when he went to his first game in Melbourne. And being passionate about the game for a quarter century shows: his podcasts and v-log Blue Abroad gets thousands of views, shares, much praise, and its success keeps growing.
Terry leads by an example as he simultaneously coaches and plays with the club. He also makes sure to explain various cultural intricacies and traditions of the game making it accessible to anyone. And his passion is contagious: the team is very susceptible to his leadership, eager to learn and leave it all on the field.
It’s quite mesmerizing to see them in action. With patchy grassed uneven poorly lit pitch, self-funded operational costs, no league or other teams to play with (unfortunately Jerusalem Peace Lions aren’t currently active, and it yet to be the first Israeli tournament between any two organized local teams), the enthusiasm, the thirst to learn and to excel is nothing short of utterly inspiring.
Terry Dehghani: “I’ve been really amazed at how receptive the guys are to my advice. Obviously this is a foreign game, a foreign movement to them. Yet any instructions and guidance that I had to offer were always received very well. And that’s something I am very grateful for.”
The team’s commitment to growth goes beyond honing athletic skills on the pitch. Players have been dreaming about the league that will make domestic tournaments possible for a while, and team’s management was looking for new ideas and opportunities. And opportunity presented itself.
At the OddBalls we have initially learnt about footy’s presence in Israel about a year ago from an Australian documentary that was released to commemorate game’s 150th anniversary back in 2008. We searched for the team and individuals featured in the movie, which led us to few inactive Facebook pages. It wasn’t until few months ago when one of the participants of another OddBalls project, Rugby Social Club, told us about going to a footy practice here in Tel Aviv.
He provided a contact of team’s manager, and few weeks ago we finally sat down with Shir Shalev to talk about his team, vision and their plans for future. The connection was instant as it was obvious that the strong leadership and a vision of the team’s management was paired with open-mindedness, eagerness to learn and to receive help in areas beyond their current expertise.
Shir Shalev: “A month ago we were just a group of guys who met to train in the park on Mondays. We were no longer Jerusalem Lions, but a new team in making still figuring out many things with a goal to participate in the Euro Cup in Cork, Ireland this October. However without a defined identity it was hard to form a proper vision and a concrete plan. And we didn’t have anyone on the team who had any experience with marketing and branding, who could step in and help us get to the next level. So the timing of connecting with OddBalls at that exact moment was perfect. In less than 2 weeks a new identity that perfectly fits our club’s character, needs and aspirations was created. We now have multiple social media channels with a plenty of great content that allows us to tell our story and reach new audiences. And we are about to launch one of the biggest campaigns in the history of Australian Football in the region.”
Newly rebranded Tel Aviv Cheetahs are making quite a splash with the reinforced message of sport for peace, commitment to developing the game in the region and adding a bit more Australian flavor to it all with the hope to create an even deeper connection with the Australian community both in Israel and in its home in Southern Hemisphere. And the goal is not to just import the footy to Israel, but to find a way to make it our own, so that Israelis could fully embrace the game.
Footy won’t be the first nor the last Australian import to Israel. The task at hand for OddBalls and Tel Aviv Cheetahs is to make it as successful as Blundstone.