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Thursday, January 26, 2012

Small City Is Home to Israel’s Unlikely Top Team

KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel — This city is one of Israel’s smallest, a hardscrabble place with a population of 23,000 that is less than two miles from the Lebanese border and through the decades hasrepeatedly found itself caught in the crossfire of Arab-Israeli strife.

In 1974, Kiryat Shmona was the scene of a terrorist attack in which 18 Israelis, many of them children, were killed. Rockets have clobbered the town during cross-border fighting. Underground shelters are as familiar to the city as traffic lights. And jobs can be scarce.

Yet somehow, Kiryat Shmona’s professional soccer team has become the runaway leader of Israel’s top league, has captured a separate tournament that concluded this week and has begun to turn perceptions of this often-beleaguered community upside down.

For now, the king of soccer in this country is a team that plays in a 5,500-seat stadium, has a diverse 23-man roster that includes six Israeli Arabs and is still adjusting to the curiosity it is creating.

When The New York Times recently contacted Adi Faraj, the club’s 26-year-old press officer, about doing an article about the team, he was initially convinced the phone call was a hoax.

“Why would The New York Times want to write about us?” he said.

But as its remarkable run of victories mounts, more and more attention will come its way. On Tuesday, a sizable contingent of the city’s residents traveled south to Petah Tikva to watch its team take on a traditional Israeli power — Hapoel Tel Aviv — in the final of the Toto Cup, the first major tournament of the season.

In a grueling contest, Kiryat Shmona surrendered a late goal that tied the score but prevailed in a penalty-kick shootout.

More impressively, the club has an 11-point lead at the top of Israel’s 16-team Premier League, putting it on course for its first league championship and, remarkably, a qualifying spot in the world’s richest and most prestigious soccer club competition, the Europe-based UEFA Champions League.

If Kiryat Shmona gets that far, it will become one of the smallest clubs to qualify for the Champions League and will find itself, at least technically, alongside powerhouse clubs like Manchester United, Barcelona and Real Madrid. For comparison, think, perhaps, of a community college somehow showing up in the N.C.A.A. Division I basketball bracket in March.

That this long-shot team — officially known as Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona — has been able to get this far has already shaken up Israeli soccer, which is normally dominated by clubs from Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa, with their bigger budgets.

Beyond that, the team has given a city that has often felt marginalized and neglected a sense of pride.

“Today, it’s like a dream,” Almorg Moryoussef, a 23-year-old student, said as he stood outside Ironi Stadium in Kiryat Shmona last Saturday as the team prepared to play Ironi Nir Ramat HaSharon and local fans — nicknamed the Blue Lions — gathered with drums and banners.

“This is the very first time since Kiryat Shmona was established that the city was in the news not because of the connection with missiles, attacks and war, but football,” he said.

The team’s rise can largely be traced to one man — Izzy Sheratzky, a millionaire from Tel Aviv who made his money in Global Positioning System devices that help track stolen cars and who founded the club 10 years ago.
Sheratzky, a native Israeli, began investing heavily in Kiryat Shmona after being moved by images of its being pounded by Katyusha rockets 13 years ago. Eventually, he decided to buy two local clubs and merge them with a dream of taking his new team to the highest level of European soccer.

“In 1999, I saw the wars and the Katyushas and many bombs,” he said in an interview last Saturday an hour before his team took the field. “Many people left Kiryat Shmona. The situation was very bad. There was no work and there was the bombs. I decided to take care of Kiryat Shmona and to help them.”

At first, Sheratzky looked to the city’s immediate needs: a soup kitchen for the poor, a children’s dental clinic, an English-language school. But he concluded that the city’s residents needed something else to bolster their morale, namely soccer. He bought the two teams, one in Israel’s fourth division, the other in the fifth, and began thinking big.

“We were 11th in the fourth league and now I hope we take the championship, and maybe next year I am coming to London for the Champions League!” he said, laughing.

When Sheratzky first arrived, the players thought his talk of rising through the divisions and of one day winning the Champions League was fanciful at best, deluded at worst.

Full Story Via New York Times