In 40-year first, Hapoel Beersheba soccer club are national champions
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In 40-year first, Hapoel Beersheba soccer club are national champions

Dramatic 3:1 win against Bney Sakhnin Saturday cements decade-long rise from second-tier league for southern team

Hapoel Beersheba F.C. soccer players celebrate after winning the Israeli League championship for the first time in 40 years in Beersheba on May 21, 2016. (Danny Meron/Flash90)
Hapoel Beersheba F.C. soccer players celebrate after winning the Israeli League championship for the first time in 40 years in Beersheba on May 21, 2016. (Danny Meron/Flash90)

After 40 years in the desert of top-tier Israeli soccer, Hapoel Beersheba has brought the desert city to the top of the sport, taking the national championship in a Saturday 3-to-1 victory over Bney Sakhnin.

The game was played on home turf, at Beersheba’s new Turner Stadium, opened last year.

The city bills itself as the “capital of the Negev” desert, and has not held the championship since 1976. The combination seemed divinely ordained, with every single Israeli news outlet proclaiming the same “40 years in the desert” line that begins this report.

The winning game was a dramatic one. Sakhnin opened with an early goal, but could not stop a three-point response over the next 90 minutes.

Beersheba’s win cements a decade-long climb out of the second tier of Israeli soccer to the rarefied heights occupied almost solely by teams from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. It is only the third championship won by Hapoel Beersheba since its founding in 1949.

Read: Sole woman owner in top-flight Israeli soccer leads against-the-odds title bid

Maccabi Tel Aviv, second-place finisher after Beersheba this season, defeated Maccabi Haifa 6:0 Saturday at Bloomfield Stadium in Jaffa — a dramatic win that brought the team to 81 points this season, just short of the 83 won by the champions from the south.

It was an emotional breakthrough for Beersheba. “We deserve this, and our fans deserve congratulations,” said the team’s coach Barak Bechar, weeping visibly at the game’s conclusion.

Alona Barkat, owner of the Hapoel Beersheba soccer club, Saturday, May 21, 2016. (Channel 2 screenshot)
Alona Barkat, owner of the Hapoel Beersheba soccer club, Saturday, May 21, 2016. (Channel 2 screenshot)

President Reuven Rivlin was quick to offer his “congratulations to the reds from Beersheba!”

“Sometimes dreams come true,” he said in a statement. “Congratulations to the team, to Beersheba, and to [owner] Alona Barkat who is doing the unbelievable, and doing it with love.”

Opposition leader MK Isaac Herzog didn’t hold back his own enthusiasm.

“Beersheba earned this! You dedicated players earned this! Beersheba residents, the most passionate spectators in Israel, loving and diverse fans who prayed and fought for this all season, you earned this. For forty years you marched and played in the desert — now you have arrived at the promised land…. The capital of the Negev has become for one night the capital of Israel.

“And well done and mabruk [blessings] to Bney Sakhnin for an impressive season,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also praised the win late Saturday. “I congratulate the team for this immense achievement,” he said on Twitter. “Beersheba is now not only the cyber capital” — a reference to the city’s growing tech industry — “but also the soccer capital. Well done.”

Outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon offered his praise on Twitter as well.

“The IDF isn’t the only thing that is coming to the Negev,” he quipped on Twitter, referring to the army’s building of large new bases in the southern desert. “Congratulations to Hapoel Beersheba for winning the championship!”

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