In international play, American soccer hardly gets any respect from the world community — the United States has never even been close to a World Cup victory. On the other hand, it remains a passion in the extreme for fans around the world.
In Buenos Aires, Argentina — where fútbol is undoubtedly king — American players in the Pan American Maccabi Games noticed that teams from South America scoffed at the idea of a U.S. championship. And why not? The United States has never won a gold medal in international Maccabi play in the most competitive division — men's soccer for the 18-to-35-year-old crowd.
"I think countries respect our athleticism. I don't think they respect us in a soccer sense or our technical ability," said Bret Myers, a 27-year-old soccer player from West Chester.
Played from Dec. 26 through Jan. 2, the Pan American Maccabi Games featured 3,000 Jewish athletes from 21 countries — mostly from North and South America — competing in 21 different sports.
The American soccer team was brilliant in the games leading up to the medal rounds, except for a tough 3-0 loss to hometown Argentina. After a shootout victory against Mexico in the semi-finals, the Americans found themselves once again facing the hometown team, and hoped to avenge the earlier loss.
"It was the fifth game of the tournament; everyone's legs are pretty heavy at that point," said Myers, who made the winning penalty kick to beat Mexico, "but the chance to win a gold medal pushes you forward."
In the end, the Americans prevailed 2-0.
"It was just an unbelievable high! We had American flags we were waving around; we were thanking our fans," said Myers. "I was elated. It was something I never experienced before."
The gold medal finally gave the Americans some respect, according to Myers, who recalled that the Argentinians made a point to congratulate the Americans after the game.
"After they cooled off and showered, a couple of players came over to us," he said. "They sort of acknowledged we were the better team that day."
With athletes competing in everything from baseball, basketball and tennis to judo, bowling and water polo, the United States sent a delegation of 485 athletes, coaches and staff — 70 from the Philadelphia area. The competition featured athletes as young as 15 or as old as 75.
At the end of the games, Argentina emerged victorious, garnering 232 medals. The United States came in second with 163; Brazil was third with 73 medals.
For a number of the American competitors — many under the age of 18 — it came as a shock that there were so many Jews who hail from South American countries like Brazil, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela.
"It's a little unreal. I knew there were Jews who lived in South America, but the numbers were mind-boggling," said 18-year-old Jared Farbman, who pitched for the gold-medal winning 15- to 19-year-old baseball team. "Obviously, the Jewish population in the whole world is so small, to go into a foreign country that's not Israel and find Jews there, it's impressive."
After helping the American field-hockey team get a bronze medal, Rachel Magerman, 16, explained that the Argentinian Jews were noticeably in awe of the sheer amount of Jews who spent two weeks in their country.
"Outside of their little community, they never meet Jewish people," said Magerman, who lives in Blue Bell, and competed along with her 18-year-old brother Jacob, who played tennis.
In junior boys basketball, the United States remained dominant with an undefeated run to the gold medal. Led by head coach Brian Schiff — who hails from Philadelphia and had the team practice here — the boys have not lost in international play since 1999, a streak of 29 games. In that span, they won six gold medals.
The Americans also did especially well in swimming, earning 60 gold medals, as well as in tennis, where they received 20 golds.
During the games in Buenos Aires — the city where the Israeli Embassy was bombed in 1992, and AMIA, the Jewish community center, was bombed in 1994 — security was said to be tight, with police escorting buses from the hotels to the games, with armed guards on each bus.
For 16-year-old Lucas Isakowitz, the journey to Buenos Aires meant more than just warm weather and a chance to play soccer. For him, it was a chance to go back to his roots.
He was born in Buenos Aires, but left as a young child. The family now lives in West Philadelphia. Spending two weeks with other Spanish-speaking Jews had an effect on the teenager.
"It was nice to know that I'm not alone," said Isakowitz, who helped his team earn a bronze. "There are a lot of Jews in Argentina and other South American countries, and they like to play soccer just like me."
The games also provided the opportunity for his grandparents, cousins and aunts to watch him play for the very first time.
"My parents were really excited for me. They kept saying, 'I would kill to have an opportunity like this.' " said the young athlete. "I felt exactly the same way. I felt privileged to be able to go."