Another sabbatical year: Israel allows a team of young Argentinian Jews to play in its professional soccer league
BUENOS AIRES (JTA) — Argentina is home to one of the most prestigious amateur Jewish sports leagues in the world. Normally, the young Argentine athletes playing there, representing various Jewish community centers from different cities, are rivals on the field.
But this season, 18 of them have come together to play in one team – in an Israeli professional league.
The development could be the start of a new programmatic trend and signals a new kind of international influence in Israeli sport, an area that has historically maintained strict caps on the number of foreign players in professional teams.
The team of Argentine Jewish teenagers fresh out of high school have been playing in Israeli soccer’s lowest professional tier, the Liga Gimel, or Gimel League, since September (league playoffs are currently underway). The players were given work visas for the seven months – and they also took part in an educational program, consisting of Hebrew lessons, volunteer activities in Israeli organizations and touring.
It’s the brainchild of former Argentinian soccer pro Fabian Grimberg, 57, who played in Argentina’s and Israel‘s top leagues – for Velez Sarfield in Buenos Aires (1980-1986) and various Israeli teams from 1988-1997 He lived in Israel for 14 years. and now lives in Buenos Aires.
Argentine Jewish families often push their children into non-athletic careers, Grimberg said, and he saw an opportunity to give young Jewish athletes a taste of life as a professional athlete before their time in college. He has worked with several other organizations, including Maccabi World Union, the group that organizes the Maccabi Games for international Jewish athletes; Maccabi Israel; and Masa Israel, a government organization that offers programs for young Diaspora Jews.
The end result has become a mix of Birthright-style programs and professional sports, and it has been a resounding success — other Israeli leagues plan to replicate it, and Jewish athletes from other countries seek to form their own national teams , sort of. Argentina’s Ambassador to Israel, Sergio Urribarri, invited the team to his embassy for a visit in October, just weeks after the program began.
“I know a lot of very good players, but Jewish families don’t always support the idea of a professional football career, in some cases they prefer to focus on a college career,” Grimberg told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. . “Sometimes they don’t want kids to have to deal with the harsh environment of sport – which includes some expressions of anti-Semitism – so I designed a gap year program before college, for them to experience Israel and the possibility of being a football player.”
The team, called Maccabi World Union Football Club (or MWU FC) and coached by an Israeli-Chilean named Uri Kohan, adapted perfectly to the level of play. They finished second in their half of the championship and participate now in the playoffs.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, in Israel’s top league, provided facilities for the Argentina team for training and offered activities with their players to get inspired.
Federico Jaratz is the team’s goalkeeper and shared an apartment in Tel Aviv with five of his teammates.
“I like the fact that we train almost every day,” he said. “The overall experience is amazing.”
Players aren’t paid, but they have their living expenses covered and gained exposure that could lead to careers in Israel’s top league: A few teams, like Israeli Premier League side Ironi Ashdod, have expressed interest to sign some of the players.
“After the education program for the whole team is over, the professional phase could start for individual players,” Grimberg said.
The Israel Football Association has never allowed a team made up entirely of foreign players – normally Israeli professional sports teams are only allowed to have a few foreign players on their rosters, to help promote local athletes. Many international players are trying to become Israeli citizens before joining their teams, to help them avoid this restriction. Some of the Argentine players are considering this route, Grimberg said.
Grimberg is already recruiting a second team for next year, but Jewish groups in other countries — and other sports leagues in Israel — have taken notice. This year, Israel’s professional football and basketball leagues will seek to sign players from Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Italy, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Spain, Uruguay , Venezuela and the United States to play in their lower ranks.
“The program plans to bring in contestants from around the world,” said Ginette Bar-Levav, program director for the Maccabi World Union’s Yachad programming arm.