WUGC 2016 Preview: Israel Men

In their first senior level appearance at a Worlds event, Israel is hoping to build something that perseveres.

Israel's Omri Ben Zion competing at WJUC 2014. Photo: Brandon Wu -- UltiPhotos.com
Israel’s Omri Ben Zion competing at WJUC 2014. Photo: Brandon Wu — UltiPhotos.com

There is a storm building in Europe — spinning in the streets of Salzburg, ploughing across French fields, and lurking in Swedish parks — and it’s heading straight for London. With WUGC nearly upon us, it is time to learn a bit more about some of the men’s teams who will be competing in England next week, squaring off against the best the world has to offer.

Building Something Bigger Than Themselves

There have been few issues more resounding or contentious than those arising from Israel in recent times. The realities of life for the people who live there often mean trying to forge a new identity for their fractured communities and carve out lives for themselves in this world. Israeli ultimate is one of these sprouting realities. A small seed that is slowly growing every year, branching out to grant shelter to those who seek it, somewhere to relax with friends, and most crucially, somewhere to enjoy play. This year, for the first time in their history, Israel will compete at a WUGC.

The origins of Israeli ultimate are, as with most of Europe, an American import. Visiting American teams, generally varsity sides, played the first games of ultimate in the region in the eighties and nineties and occasionally Israelis would return from American holidays armed with discs and a desire to introduce the sport to their friends. However, the true advent of ultimate in the region came in 2003 with the establishment of IFDA (Israeli Flying Disc Association), then operating under the acronym FLOW. The inception of a governing body allowed for the regulation and dissemination of ultimate throughout the country, culminating in the establishment of Israel’s first tournament, the Passover Cup, in 2005. This has since been augmented with a national league consisting of between six and eight teams annually. Progress has been gradual but steady; the sport is spreading out and each year the teams at Nationals get a little bigger.

There is another major source of ultimate activity in the region, one with which we hope you are well acquainted: Ultimate Peace. The program, started in 2009, aims to bring the divided elements of Israeli society together through ultimate; focusing on youth, Ultimate Peace is helping to break down the cultural barriers and develop an inclusive sporting fraternity. Starting out as camps where children from different ethnic groups could come together and play, the success of the initiative has led to it developing summer camps, year-long training programs, and hat tournaments. The benefits of Ultimate Peace for Israeli ultimate are present as the youth-orientated focus is inescapable when examining their burgeoning Junior teams. While Israel’s attendance at senior events has been sporadic, their appearances in U20 Championships have become routine since 2010 and they are starting to become regular participants in the U17 divisions as well. Connections between IFDA and Ultimate Peace are strong and prevalent; this year marked the inaugural inclusion of multiple Ultimate Peace teams in the national league and several of the younger standout players on Israel Open this year got started in Ultimate Peace camps.

Even with the developments in youth ultimate throughout the country, there is another important supply of talent for the squad: America. In the past, Israel has coaxed over North American talent through their familial connections to Israel. This year’s Open team continues that trend with a few Americans who have been connected with Israeli ultimate in the past. While this policy has received mixed reviews at times, it is not isolated in its execution. Expats who have plied their trade in more experienced fields frequently return to the fold of their national teams in big tournament years. Head Coach Chen Bankirer says those selected were picked: “Not according to skill level, rather people that have family here, and visited and played with us several times here and abroad.” These players are naturally granted the virtue of being blooded in the most competitive ultimate scene on the planet. They provide an influx of talent and experience that is hard to find amongst the valleys and mountains of Israel. Ultimately, the selection process was limited for the team as Bankirer notes: “We had try-outs, but in such a small community there were very little surprises there.”

The participation of Israel Open in WUGC is a significant step for the Israeli ultimate community. They have been slowly increasing their involvement in the European scene over the last few years, but this is Israel’s first attendance at a World Championships at Senior level. Training has taken the form of several intense one-day camps; these are reinforced with regular weekly sessions being conducted by smaller groups. They did not make any appearances at warm-up tournaments, highlighting the team’s attention on themselves. In terms of understanding the opposition, Bankirer said they “Haven’t looked at the team names. I prefer self-focus.”

The true success of this team will not be measured in standing, but rather: “According to the goal of making something that lasts.”

Players to Watch

Koren Meliniak

Fighting his way back from a debilitating ACL tear, Meliniak is one of Israel’s primary threats on offense. A veteran of previous European campaigns, including a stellar appearance at EUC 2011, Meliniak is too well acquainted with high level ultimate to be fazed by it. His recovery coinciding perfectly with start of the tournament comes as no surprise to his teammates — Meliniak greatest strength has always been timing.

Omri Ben Zion

A little over 19 years old, Zion is already one of the best handlers in Israel. A product of the growing youth programs in the country, he runs the offense with the authority and confidence of a veteran. While it remains to be seen how he matches up against more stalwart international defenses, he is eager to find out.

Yarden Borkov

A veteran of multiple international sojourns by Israel, dating back to WJUC 2006, Borkov is one of the best D-line cutters around. His small size affords the agility to stay in the pocket of whoever he is assigned to. On the other side of the disc, he plays the classic role of a tireless D-Line cutter, a constant blur of movement darting in front of the handlers before popping it back to them and taking off again. Expect to see him dominating key defensive possessions as the tournament wears on and bodies start to fall apart.

What To Expect

Israeli ultimate, much like the state itself, is a relatively new addition to Europe. Their endeavor reflects Israel’s search for an inclusive identity. The squad is an amalgamation of veteran Israeli players, the coaching staff of Chen Bankirer and Koren Meliniak (who share over 30 years of experience between them), American connections, and products of Ultimate Peace. Many of the players attending the tournament have international experience, the majority of which was acquired at the Junior level.

Given the size and depth of the ultimate scene, the squad understands where they rank in the standings. Still, Bankirer believes they can challenge the second-tier European teams and their international counterparts. But to focus on where they finish is to miss the entire point of this exercise; the desired end product of Israel ultimate’s participation in London is not a position in the table. It lies in their hopes of establishing something that will persevere, in establishing a ground floor from which to build a lasting community. In this regard, as in many others, their team is just like everyone else’s.

If you would like to learn more about the excellent work of Ultimate Peace and how to get involved, details are available at http://www.ultimatepeace.org/.

  1. Lorcan Murray
    Lorcan Murray

    Lorcán Murray is an Ultiworld contributor and freelance journalist. He lives in Limerick, Ireland. He plays ultimate for PELT and with his mustache regularly. You can reach him by email: rev.lmurray@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter @RevLorcan.

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