The unlikely odyssey of a soccer team from a small Israeli town reaches its moment of truth on Tuesday, but whatever the result the players of Kiryat Shmona have put the town on the sports map in Israel and abroad.
On Tuesday night, Ironi Kiryat Shmona — the unlikely champion of Israel’s premiere league last season — faces BATE Borisov of Belarus, the team that dealt it a 2-0 defeat last week and signaled the very real possibility of an end to the Israeli team’s push for a place in this season’s most prestigious European competition. The Israeli team, a minnow among sharks in the playoff round for the UEFA Champions League, needs a decisive home victory to stay alive, reach the league’s group stage and get a shot at playing superpowers like Manchester United.
Still, the team has repeatedly upended pessimistic expectations.
Kiryat Shmona, population 23,000, was long known only as a regular target for rockets from neighboring Lebanon, which often sent the city’s children to bomb shelters beginning in the late 1970s.
But in the relative quiet that followed the Israel-Hezbollah war in 2006, the city lost even that dubious distinction, remaining a remote, underemployed town at Israel’s northern tip.
The unlikely success of the soccer club has changed that. The team was formed in 2000 out of two lackluster local clubs with the backing of Izzy Sheratzky, a Tel Aviv businessman whose company, Ituran, manufactures tracking devices for cars. Few gave the new club much chance of success.
But after a few years of toiling at the bottom of the standings, and against all predictions, the team’s fortunes shifted. It began a steady climb that peaked in April of this year when the team beat out the local soccer heavyweights from Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem and won the country’s top league championship. It was the first team not from a major Israeli city to do so in nearly three decades.
As league champion, the team began competing in Europe, and came through three rounds of qualifying matches to reach the playoff round for the UEFA Champions League. If it fails to redeem its first-leg defeat in Belarus last week, it will still play in the second-level Europa League.
“The team brought pride to Kiryat Shmona, and taught us that instead of crying about our fate we have to create a vision and work to achieve it,” said Doron Shnaper, a spokesman for City Hall. “It’s a clear message to every kid here and in every Israeli town far from the center that you can have a dream and realize that dream.”
Ironi Kiryat Shmona and BATE Borisov face off Tuesday night in Ramat Gan. Kiryat Shmona’s local stadium was deemed too small to host the decisive game.