At the age of 12, few children know exactly what they want to be when they grow up. In football terms, Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona is still a child. Yet, even at this tender age, the northern Israeli club already has a good idea of what it wants to do in later life: become an icon.
The young club is growing up fast, having just won the Israeli championship for the first time in its history. Ran Ben Shimon’s men secured the title with five games to spare, after holding Hapoel Tel-Aviv to a goalless draw at home on 9 April and opening up an unassailable 16-point lead over their closest challengers.
The Lions are the first team since 1999 to break the stranglehold of Israel’s ‘big four’ of Maccabi Tel-Aviv, Maccabi Haifa, Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem, who have shared 26 of the last 28 league titles. The last club to achieve the feat was Hapoel Haifa, whose captain at the time was none other than Ben Shimon.
“I feel satisfaction and pride,” said Ben Shimon, a former international who made 34 appearances for Israel. “I’ve loved everything we’ve done along the road to this triumph. This season has been a collection of amazing moments, and we’ve made progress every week. Our success is like a ray of sunshine for this area, which has been through so many difficult periods.”
Indeed, Kiryat Shmona, a small city of 23,000 people, is more used to making headlines for being the target of rocket attacks, and for the poverty and high unemployment rate that has led many locals to flee the area.
Football, a social need
The delicate situation in the town, located near the Lebanese border, was what attracted Izzy Sheratzky, a businessman who would become the main architect for Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona’s success. In 1999, moved by what he saw, Sheratzky relocated to the town and set up a soup kitchen for the poorest of the poor, as well as a dental clinic for children and an English school.
Having addressed the problem of food and education, Sheratzky turned his attention to the people’s third most pressing need: football. “In this city, which doesn’t even have a cinema, football is quite simply a social need,” he explained. In 2000 Sheratzky acquired and merged the town’s two local football clubs, and, in doing so, created what would ultimately become the title-winning Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona of today.
Sheratzky supports Maccabi Tel-Aviv and, as he explained, is a former member of the club’s youth set-up: “I had to stop [playing for them] because the coach caught me smoking, and I was too embarrassed to return to the team after that!” Now, however, he is completely committed to the Kiryat Shmona cause. “Nothing will discourage me or make me leave,” he said in 2011, after his team finished fifth in their first season back in the top division. “It’s like adopting a child – why would I abandon it? Everyone has the right to fail, but not to give up.”
The Kiryat Shmona fairytale began with the club’s climbing from the fourth division to the top flight in just six years, before finishing third in their debut season among the elite and playing in the UEFA Cup the following year. Success had perhaps come too quickly, however, as Kiryat Shmona were relegated back down to the second division that same season. A year later they were back in the top division, and learned from previous mistakes to finish the 2010/11 campaign in fifth place. They also won the Toto Cup that year, before successfully defending their crown and adding the league title to their list of honours in 2012.
Coming of age
The achievement is remarkable given that, despite now sitting alongside Israeli football's big boys, the club is still effectively in its adolescence. Kiryat Shmona is the smallest town with a team in the Israeli top flight, and its stadium can hold just 5,500 fans. The club also has limited funds for recruitment, so Sheratzky and Ben Shimon had to trawl the local talent pool to assemble their title-winning squad.
“I grew up at this club, so it’s a very special feeling,” said captain Adrian Rochet, 24, a product of the youth academy that has become one of Sheratzky’s top priorities. “Of course, I used to dream of lifting the championship trophy when I was a child, but I would never have believed it would be more than just a dream!”
Israeli boys of Jewish faith reach maturity at the age of 13, and their transition from childhood to manhood is traditionally marked by a Bar Mitzvah ceremony and a large party. Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona celebrate their 13th birthday next season. And as coming-of-age presents go, a place in the UEFA Champions League proper would certainly not be a bad one.