For the Israeli women's football team, the journey is uphill and filled with optimism
Despite the lack of funding and support, coaches and players hope for a World Cup appearance in their future.
If the fervor around the current FIFA Women's World Cup is any indication, women's soccer is having a global moment. Four national teams – Chile, South Africa, Jamaica and Scotland – made their debut at this year's tournament, each bringing their unique stories of struggle, adversity and triumph to the world stage.
In Israel, the journey of the women's national team faces a perpetual uphill battle, dogged by funding and participation shortfalls. Despite impressive finishes in a few European qualifiers over the years, the team has never qualified for a World Cup or a Women's Euro.
Could it happen four years from now? Could it happen in our lifetimes? According to head coach Guy Azouri, the tide is beginning to turn.
'Quantity will breed quality'
"It's not like in the States, where you see a million girls playing soccer," Azouri, who heads up the Israeli Women's Football Academy, told From The Grapevine. "But we're starting to see girls come out, start playing in the youth leagues. We're making good results [there], moving a lot in those tournaments."
Like much of the rest of the world, support for women's sports in Israel – both financially and culturally – tends to fall short. That results in lower participation at the youth level, but Azouri said he's seeing "tremendous change" with each passing season.
After a rough start in the late 1990s, the team enjoyed a 12-1 win over Estonia in a 2004 qualifying match for the European women's championship. But after a crushing loss to Belarus the following fall, the team failed to qualify.
"Quantity will breed quality," he told us. "It will take more time, and right now, to look for qualifying for a World Cup ... it's almost impossible. But we're seeing the gaps closing."
For women who strive to play soccer professionally, Israel sometimes becomes a sensible place to land. Current team captain Shay Sade, a defender, said the biggest challenge is to keep players operating as one unit, despite multiple outside forces.
"In Israel, women's soccer players have to work other jobs," said Sade, who grew up in Israel and played in youth boys teams before joining Maccabi Kishronot Hadera in the women's league at the age of 14. "It’s very hard to get into the mentality of a professional player and keep working every day."
Israel's Shay Sade (center left) and Alina Metkalov (right) and Norway's Ada Hegerberg (center up) vie for the ball during the qualification game in Ulsteinvik, Norway, on September 19, 2016. Norway won 5-0. (Photo: SVEIN OVE EKORNESVAAG/AFP/Getty Images)
It's a common challenge with underfunded teams, and it often means players don't earn much money. It can also mean that players can't keep their game jerseys, or that they have to be bused long distances instead of flying to international competitions. Veteran midfielder Diana Redman can't help but put those conditions in stark contrast to the first-class treatment that women's soccer players in the U.S. enjoy.
"I absolutely love playing for the national team, and yes, it is a big honor, but it gets harder to justify the conditions," Redman told us. "The federation provides far more support and appropriate conditions for the men than the women."
Now 34, Redman says she's seeing progress, however slowly. "I'm always optimistic," she said. "Other countries have invested in their women's programs, and it's no coincidence that their programs are blooming and their teams improving dramatically. It's just a matter of time before Israel gets on board. I personally won't see the benefits, but the younger girls will be in a better position when they get to the senior age."
Diana Redman walks the pitch in Israel with her daughter. Redman was born in New York and was recruited to play for Israel in college. She now lives in Houston and works as a clinical psychologist. (Photo: Courtesy Diana Redman)
The development of the women's academy in Israel, now in its sixth year, is a key reason for that optimism.
"The academy was only supposed to be open for two years," Coach Azouri explained. "But we got a lot of support and are able to keep it running, and we're seeing some really good results."
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