Aiming for Important Goals

Jan 26, 2012 Published under Israel, Middle East

This article tells the inspiring story of a soccer team that unites Arabs and Israelis in pursuit of lofty goals on and off the field.  As the article states, “[w]ith football you can do peace, the Arab and Israeli living together.”

By Adeena Schlussel

The New York Times

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 has repeatedly 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.

“Izzy came here when I was a player and said we’ll be in the national league, that we’d be champions and after that be in Champions League,” said Yossi Edri, the club’s 39-year-old general manager. “I thought: Who is this man? We thought he was cuckoo.”

But as the team rose steadily, not by spending lavishly on players, but by investing in an academy to nurture young players, Sheratzky’s vision slowly started to become more realistic. Last year, Kiryat Shmona won the Toto Cup for the first time. Now it has repeated, and if it can capture the State Cup tournament and the league title, it will do something no Israeli team has done before.

It will try to do so with a combination of journeyman players, young prospects, a handful of foreigners — including a 27-year-old Argentine-American midfielder, — and, perhaps most significantly, a mixture of Israeli Arabs and Jews.

“For us, this is very important,” Edri said of the roster’s makeup. “With football you can do peace, the Arab and Israeli living together.”

By the time the referee blew his whistle to start the match last Saturday, 2,000 fans had arrived to cheer on their team, despite biting cold. By the end of the match 3,500 were there, still not enough to fill the stadium. Although that would seem to suggest lingering fan apathy amid all the growing success, it might also illustrate the difficulties such a small city faces in operating on a big-league level.

Sheratzky watched the match unfold, smoking a Cuban cigar as the fans chanted in Hebrew, “Kiryat Shmona, the empire of the north!” In the end, Kiryat Shmona won easily, thrashing Ramat HaSharon, 4-0.

Much of Kiryat Shmona’s fan base is of Sephardic descent, reflecting a population that consists primarily of Jews whose heritage is North African and Middle Eastern. But there are other fans, too, like Jay Abramoff, 41, from the United States, who immigrated to Israel 15 years ago and recently moved to the outskirts of the city.

“I fell in love with the whole atmosphere and started coming to soccer games for the first time in my life,” Abramoff said at Saturday’s game. “I’ve been involved with teams that came out of nowhere to win a division. I was in Atlanta 20 years ago when the Braves went from worst to first. It feels the same.”

As soon as the final whistle blew, the whole team linked arms and ran toward the stands where the fans had sung continuously through the match. The players bowed in appreciation.

Appreciative, too, was Coach Ran Ben Shimon, 41, who once played internationally and has presided over the team for the last six years.

“Sometimes when we played the big teams we would be shaking,” he said. “But I have smart players. Stars — it is not that they are found in the sky, they are also found in groups. So this big superstar in this club is the team and the team spirit.”

Meanwhile, Moryoussef, the student who is a Kiryat Shmona fan, and the rest of the Blue Lions packed up their drums and rolled up their signs, as car horns honked loudly outside in celebration.

Sheratzky stood and observed it all as the stadium’s floodlights were turned off one by one. “Look, over there is Lebanon, over there is the Golan,” he said, pointing at the dark hills that rise around the stadium, highlighting the city’s precarious geography. “No cinema here, they all closed. But football is enjoyed by the people.”

Three days later, his players handed him the Toto Cup after their victory in Petah Tikva and again went over to the stands to thank the fans — some of them singing, some of them crying.

Moryoussef was present, too, just as he had been Saturday. “This is my dream,” he said, beaming. “Izzy Sheratzky is right. We are only happy through football.”

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