Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona: A Journey to the Promised Land

Hailing from Israel's northern border with Lebanon, the club from the war-torn town of Kiryat Shmona defied the odds to lift Israel's biggest trophy of all earlier this year.
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Hailing from Israel's northern border with Lebanon, the club from the war-torn town of Kiryat Shmona defied the odds to lift Israel's biggest trophy of all earlier this year.

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Sandwiched between the rolling hills of the Hula Valley that skirts alongside Israel’s northern border with Lebanon and the rocky plateau of the Golan Heights, Kiryat Shmona is a place more accustomed to the roar of missiles than that of victory. Bombarded over the years by Hezbollah’s rocket attacks, and shook by the gunfire of it’s anti-aircraft cannons, it’s a town that bares the scars of war: it’s skyline crumbled, it’s population decimated by fear and poverty. Yet amid the pain of conflict an unlikely set of heroes have given the beleaguered population of this savaged town hope.

Twelve years ago Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona existed only in the mind of Izzy Sheratzky. Haunted by the images of the besieged northern outpost, Tel Aviv born Sheratzky – a millionaire who amassed his fortune through the manufacture of GPS devices – decided he had to do something to restore the pride of the 23,000 long-suffering townspeople. Initially he elected to invest in building the essentials that were so desperately required: a school, dentist’s surgery and soup kitchens for the needy. But with their basic needs met Sheratzky realised he wanted to give his people something more, something which would unite people and provide them with the opportunity to escape from the hardships of their day-to-day lives. After much deliberation, he found his answer on the football field.

Struck by his vision, takeover deals for local sides Hapoel Kiryat Shmona and Maccabi Kiryat Shmona were completed, before Sheratzky merged the two in 2000 to form Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona. This new team took their place in the Israeli fourth tier, but Sheratzky had big dreams, telling players, fans and the press alike that one day his club would rise to the top. Some thought he was a madman, most were simply glad to have the distraction. Virtually nobody however predicted the incredible journey Sheratzky and this town were about to embark on.

Kiryat Shmona is a place more accustomed to the roar of missiles than that of victory

In their first year of existence Hapoel Ironi won the northern division of the Liga Alef and were promoted to the now defunct Liga Artzit. In the 2002-03 season they finished as runners-up to Hakoah Ramat Gan to clinch promotion to Liga Leumit. In their first year in the second tier they missed out on promotion on goal difference after finishing level on points with second placed Hapoel Nazareth Illit. The following year they again finished third, but bounced back to win the league in 2007, earning a place in the Israeli Premier League in the process and becoming the first team from Kiryat Shmona ever to reach the top flight. The same season they also won the Liga Leumit Toto Cup, Israel’s equivalent of the League Cup. That made it three promotions and a piece of major silverware for Sheratzky’s team in just six years. Those who had dismissed him as crazy were now paying attention.

What made this run of achievements all the more impressive was that, despite Sheratzky’s riches, it was achieved without major investment in the first team squad. The players that guided Kiryat Shmona to the top were, for the most part, the same collection of amateurs and semi-pros that had been plying their trade in the fourth and fifth tiers just a few years earlier. Instead of recruiting big name players and bowing to their wage demands, Sheratzky instead poured his vast resources into constructing an academy that has nurtured several players through the ranks and into the first team, most notably club captain Adrian Rochet.

Another decisive move by Sheratzky was the managerial appointment in 2006 of former Israeli international defender Ran Ben Shimon, who clinched the Liga Leumit title in his first season in charge. Incredibly, in their first season in the top flight Ben Shimon guided his team to a third place finish, a result which yielded a place in the UEFA Cup. Though Litex Lovech of Bulgaria defeated Hapoel Ironi in the second qualifying round Ben Shimon had already done enough to impress those at the top of Israeli football, and he was recruited to lead Maccabi Tel Aviv for the 2008-09 season. That same season, his former club were relegated back to the Liga Leumit. To many it appeared that Sheratzky’s dream was over, and that Kiryat Shmona would slide down the football pyramid and back into obscurity.

That made it three promotions and a piece of major silverware for Sheratzky’s team in just six years. Those who had dismissed him as crazy were now paying attention.

But fate was to intervene. After a disastrous start with Maccabi Tel Aviv that had seen the Israel’s most successful ever club record just two wins in their first eight fixtures Ben Shimon was sacked. Then, in April 2009 Sheratzky lured his former coach back to Israel’s far north and, though he was too late to save them from relegation, he presided over an instant return to the Premier League as Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona were crowned Liga Leumit league and Toto Cup champions, a remarkable double crown of titles to defy their critics.

But if that was a special achievement what followed was a miracle in the homeland of the miraculous. In their first year back in the Premier League Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona won the Toto Cup, becoming the first team in history to clinch both the first and second tier Toto Cups in back-to-back seasons. On January 24th this year, they defeated Hapoel Tel Aviv to claim consecutive top flight Toto Cups. Then, just four weeks ago, they went one better. Already the runaway leaders, Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona secured a goalless draw against second placed Hapoel Tel Aviv that saw them crowned Premier League champions. The victory was not just one for Sheratzky, or Ben Shimon and his players, but one for all of Kiryat Shmona. It was the first time in nearly thirty years that a team from outside Israel’s three major cities – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa – had lifted the title. That it was the tiny town in the savaged borders of Galilee that broke this monopoly makes it all the more amazing.

Yet still there is more to the story. In a season which has seen the traditional top four sides of Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem weakened by points deductions for fan violence amongst other discrepancies, Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona offer a message of peace that defies their brutal origins. Despite their location in the heart of one of the most volatile regions in the world, the club bridges the divide that plagues the area, featuring as it does both Israeli Arabs and Jews amongst its ranks. Following their first Premier League title Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu contacted the club directly to congratulate them, and released a statement calling their victory “a celebration for all the people of Israel”. A place in the Champions League may now await Sheratzky’s outfit, but sadly they will once again be without Ben Shimon. A much publicised fall out with Sheratzky over a new contract has forced the coach out the door. Such an issue may be unfortunate, but it cannot taint this wonderful story of triumph in the face of adversity, of peace and unity, and of the power of hope. It’s a story Sheratzky has been telling for over a decade and one that has now, at last, come true.

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