New immigrants’ soccer team hopes to beat Israel at its own game

Ricardo Horvath, manager of the Inter Aliyah soccer club, holds up a team jersey following a victory over Beitar Jaffa in Tel Aviv, March 17, 2017. (Andrew Tobin)

TEL AVIV (JTA) – “Vamos!” “Pass it!” “Ladrao!”

For most of the match on a local field Friday, the Inter Aliyah Club soccer players speak a variety of languages. But when the ball hits the back of the opposing team’s net, they join in soccer’s universal victory cry: “Goooal!”

Inter Aliyah, a team of Jewish immigrants to Israel mostly from Europe and South America, is playing its first season in the national soccer league. Bonded by their immigration experience and a love of soccer, the players endured early losses and are now on a monthlong winning streak.

Manager Ricardo Horvath’s long-term goal is to build a topflight team of olim, or immigrants, with a fan base of Diaspora Jews.

“We have made huge progress already this season. Eventually we want to be the home for new immigrants to Israel from all over the world,” he said. “It will be a team the Diaspora can identify with.”

Inter Aliyah players pose for a team photo on their home field in Tel Aviv, Nov. 18, 2016. (Courtesy of Inter Aliyah Club)

In his office after losing 5-1 to Inter Aliyah on Friday, Michael Demo, the longtime coach of Beitar Jaffa, an all-Jewish Israeli team in the historically Arab district of southern Tel Aviv, says he knows from experience how hard it is to move up in Israeli soccer. His team has gone the other direction over the decades, falling from the third division to a spot below Inter Aliyah in the fifth division after the loss. But he has nothing but praise for the victors.

“They are a very good football team. They are physical. They run the whole game. They listen to their coaches,” Demo said. “With four more quality players, they will take the championship” of the division and qualify for a higher league.

Horvath, a 26-year-old recent immigrant from Quito, Ecuador, came up with the idea for Inter Aliyah a few years ago while earning a master’s degree in sports management at New York University. The plan is for the team to compete in Israel’s Premier League, which would mean rising through the four lower leagues of the Israel Football Association.

At the same time, Horvath says, he wants to create a full-fledged sports club, on the model of the national sports giant Maccabi Israel, but with Hebrew lessons and other absorption services as well.

Other immigrant teams have tried and failed to make it big in Israel, but Horvath says they lacked the grand vision required. He also notes that social media now makes it easier to gain visibility. He envisions immigrant teams playing at all levels, although he acknowledges that the top teams in the club might lose their olim identity as players go to the highest bidder. Horvath predicts there would be a steady stream of olim into the lower level teams.

Last year an estimated 27,400 new immigrants arrived in Israel, a 12 percent dip from the previous year.

Horvath, who has a day job in high-tech, began working on the team soon after he immigrated to Tel Aviv last May. He started by convincing the players of Inter Tel Aviv, a team that had just won the recreational Olim League, to sign onto his project. With their help, in the few months before the Israel Football Association’s registration deadline, he held tryouts, found sponsors, secured a home field (down the street from Beitar Jaffa’s) and ordered uniforms — complete with the team logo of a lion, a Star of David and a map of the world.

The players, all unpaid, come from the United States, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Germany, Sweden, Spain, England and Italy, along with Israel.

Because the national league is open only to Israeli citizens and permanent residents, several Inter Tel Aviv players quickly changed their status and several others were unable to play, including one non-Jew.

“He was the best of those players, too,” said Horvath, sadly.

Inter Aliyah started the season last October losing 11 of its first 19 games. In addition to adjusting to the bruising Israel competition, the team struggled to field a consistent lineup. Some of the players had to work or had other priorities, and at least one starter always seemed to be on a visit back home.

But Inter Aliyah has found its footing over the past several weeks, winning its last four games following a draw. It now has a record of 8-11-5, putting the squad in 10th place out of 16 clubs in the Tel Aviv subdivision.

The addition in January of four talented players, including some Israelis, gave the team a much-needed boost. One of the new players, Leonardo Fingerhut, a 25-year-old forward from Sao Paulo, Brazil, had an assist and a goal in Friday’s game. After working on a kibbutz for several months, he moved to Tel Aviv this month, in part to be closer to the team. He was sleeping on teammates’ couches while he looked for a job and an apartment in Tel Aviv.

“We are all like family, like brothers,” Fingerhut said. “Everybody helped me when I needed it in a lot of different senses. I’m also really grateful to the Israeli players on the team who helped me find work” at a restaurant.

Other players and coaches had similar stories. In addition to weekly games and biweekly training sessions — grueling CrossFit workouts on Sundays and soccer on Wednesdays — the teammates spend much of their free time together. Their Facebook page, beautifully curated, serves largely as a message board for players and their friends and family.

Beneath a photo of winger Fernando Zatz celebrating a three-goal hat trick posted Saturday night, his father wrote, “That’s my boy” with two heart-eyed emoticons.

“Hall of fame for you,” Horvath commented in Spanish.

Jerome Katz, 33, a native of Zurich, Switzerland, who helped found Inter Tel Aviv and coaches Inter Aliyah, says he isn’t sure how far Inter Aliyah realistically can go in the Israeli league, and he worries the team will lose its distinctive character as it tries to become more competitive. Katz says he saw it before on his Swiss team, which moved up to the third level of the national league.

“[Inter Aliyah] is basically a bunch of guys from around the world who love this damn sport like it’s a religion, and we get on really well. We have sweethearts on our team,” the coach said. “I can tell you, the more you move up, the more it can destroy the chemistry of a team. You bring in people with talent who don’t necessarily fit in.”

But Sam Sank, 26, a British Israeli who plays defense and manages social media for Inter Aliyah, points out that it has been done before. He cites the example of RB Leipzig, which pledged to and then did advance from the bottom of Germany’s national league to the top Bundesliga in eight years. The secret there was the willingness of the owner, Red Bull, to invest money.

Inter Aliyah has sponsorship from CrossFit Tel Aviv and 90min, a digital media company based in Tel Aviv that relies on olim from around the world to cover world international soccer in about a dozen languages.

“I think the hardest stage is now,” Sank said. “Once we get out of this league we can start attracting money and looking forward. But listen, all these crazy stories have to start somewhere. I really think because of the uniqueness of our team, and all the attention we’re getting, we can do it.”

Horvath is already looking for new sponsors and players, whom he hopes to be able to pay next season. He says he has three good prospects and will hold tryouts again next summer. In July, he will be recruiting at the Maccabiah Games, the Olympics-style competition for Jewish athletes held every four years in Israel.

“You have the top 20 Jewish players from every country. So that’s obviously a huge opportunity for us to find talent,” Horvath said. “I’ve just got to convince these guys to make aliyah.”