The Maccabi Haifa soccer team punched its ticket to the UEFA Champions League group stage for the first time in over a decade Tuesday night, beating Red Star Belgrade 5-4 on aggregate.
In dramatic style, Maccabi’s winning score came on a 90th-minute own-goal from the Serbian side’s Milan Pakvok, clinching the 2-2 tie in Belgrade after Maccabi had won the first leg at home 3-2.
The win means Maccabi will join 31 other teams in European soccer’s biggest annual competition, where it will face off against top-flight squads from across the continent.
It will be the team’s third-ever appearance in the group stage, and the first for an Israeli side since Maccabi Tel Aviv made it in 2015.
Maccabi found itself in a hole early against home squad Red Star after a goal by forward Alexander Pesic in the 27th minute. Fifteen minutes later, Red Star midfielder Mirko Ivanic sent a screaming shot into the top of the net to put Red Star in the driver’s seat 2-0.
Maccabi would not wait long to come roaring back. With the first half in stoppage time, Haifa’s Dolev Haziza’s penalty shot was blocked by Red Star goalie Milan Borjan. However, the Israelis regained possession and seconds later defender Daniel Sundgren sent a curveball past a diving Borjan to give Maccabi its first score.
With a scoreless second half coming to a close and the teams headed for a tie on aggregate, Omer Atzili’s corner kick flew in the direction of Pavkok, who awkwardly tried to deflect the ball and instead sent it sailing into his own net.
With the win, Haifa became the first Israeli team ever to make it into the Champions League group stage three times: Its first appearance came in 2002-2003 and it repeated the feat in 2009-2010.
Maccabi Tel Aviv has made the group stage twice, in 2004-2005 and then again in 2015-2016; Hapoel Tel Aviv had a single appearance in 2010-2011.
Politicians and others rushed to heap praise on the Haifa squad following the win.
“You’ve brought great pride to all Israelis,” Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in a congratulatory message to the team. “We’ll be crossing our fingers for you in the Champions League.”
They’ll likely need all the luck they can get. No Israeli team has ever made it past the group stage into the round of 16 knockout tournament.
The top two teams in each group advance. A drawing to determine group placement is slated for Thursday.
In its last appearance 12 years ago, Haifa became the first ever team to not record a single goal in every Champions League group stage game, losing all six meetings.
Six years later, Maccabi Tel Aviv nearly repeated the feat, going 0-6 but managing a single goal against Portugal’s Porto.