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'Our team has Jews, Arabs, foreign Christians, and we sign players according to merit, not ethnic or religious background'

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

When Alona Barkat bought Hapoel Beersheba in 2007, the club was stuck in the second tier. Now it’s headed for a first championship in 40 years. No wonder her gender has ceased to be an issue

Hapoel Beersheba players (in red) in action against Hapoel Afula during the semifinal of the Israeli cup at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on April 29, 2015.  (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hapoel Beersheba players (in red) in action against Hapoel Afula during the semifinal of the Israeli cup at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on April 29, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the cutthroat, male-dominated world of soccer, you won’t find too many women at the top, with the exception of Katharina Liebherr of Southampton FC and Margharita Louis-Dreyfus of Olympique de Marseille — the two most prominent female club owners in Europe.

It’s a similar, mostly masculine, story in Israel, where the exception is Alona Barkat, owner of Hapoel Beersheba FC.

While Israeli soccer has a reputation for machismo, from player and fan alike, Barkat, 46, insists that she faces no sexist prejudices.

“To tell the truth, I don’t feel any difference in the way people relate to me,” she told The Times of Israel. “At first, it raised a few eyebrows, but now it seems natural to everyone. The fact that I’m a woman is no longer an issue… I’m judged by results.”

Alona Barkat (Courtesy)
Alona Barkat (Courtesy)

And the results have been impressive. Barkat has been credited with turning around the team, which she bought in 2007 for only $1.8 million when it was ailing financially and languishing in Israel’s second-tier division. Within two years, Hapoel Beersheba was promoted to Ligat Ha’Al, the country’s premier league, going up against the big boys of Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa.

With just a few games left to play in this year’s season, the team is in first place and perhaps heading for its first championship title since 1976.

It would be an understatement to say that Beersheba’s rank and file of Sephardi Jewish male fans did not immediately take to Barkat. Not only is she a woman in a predominantly male world, but she was seen as an “intruder” from the wealthy suburbs of north Tel Aviv where she lives with her high-tech investment billionaire husband Eli Barkat, brother of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.

“Since I was a girl, I’ve always been interested in ‘boys’ things’ like motor racing…. I also developed an interest in soccer,” she said. “I had been involved in philanthropy and thought what better way to promote educational values and bring about social change than through soccer.”

Barkat is not shy when it comes to taking on sexism as well as racism in the sport.

“There is no place for racism or intolerance in soccer,” she said. “Our team has Jews, Arabs, foreign Christians, and we sign players according to merit, not their ethnic or religious background.”

Hapoel Beersheba fans cheer on the team at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on April 29, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hapoel Beersheba fans cheer on the team at the Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on April 29, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Barkat added that the club works with the local community and offers programs for 600 youths, including special programs for Bedouin and Ethiopian immigrants.

“Through Hapoel Beersheba, we can give back to society,” she said proudly.

Barkat admits it took several seasons and moving up to top division before she gained the respect of the fans, which she has done with a mixture of charm and, most of all, results.

Despite having the league’s fifth-largest budget (Barkat is reluctant to talk about money, although she admits to subsidizing an annual loss), the team finished second in the 2013-2014 season and qualified for the UEFA Europa League in 2014-2015. It played again this year in the elite European tourney, but lost to FC Thun of Switzerland.

The current budget is only about $13 million — a pretty modest sum compared to Maccabi Tel Aviv’s $40-million annual budget — but the team still manages to compete and impress at the highest level.

Roman Abramovich (photo credit: CC-BY-Mark Freeman, Wikimedia Commons)
Roman Abramovich (CC BY-Mark Freeman, Wikimedia Commons)

Barkat has also earned respect from the fans because she is a hands-on owner, and can be just as tough as the next soccer club owner when it comes to making business decisions — no different from, say, the shrewd Russian-Jewish billionaire Roman Abramovich, who owns Chelsea Football Club.

Last season Barkat fired Elisha Levy, her manager of three seasons, after the team finished third in the league. The axing came a week before the cup final, denying Levy the honor of leading his team out before the showpiece match, which in the end it lost to Maccabi Tel Aviv 6-2.

Barkat also showed her tougher side when in 2010 she announced she would be selling the club after fans assaulted then-manager Guy Azuri. She retracted her threat after the violence was rooted out.

Barkat replaced Levy with Barak Bachar after he took Hapoel Kiryat Shmona to second place last season. He has since tightened the defense and built a more disciplined, organized unit around a blend of stars like former Genk striker Elyaniv Barda and Chelsea striker Ben Sahar, imported players like Nigerian midfielder John Ogu, and homegrown youth team talent including defender Ofir Davidzada.

The opening of a new 16,100-seat stadium in Beersheba, which has sold out every game, has also been a boost to the team.

But can Hapoel Beersheba become champions?

“We always believed we might one day be the best team in Israel, even when we were in the second division,” said Barkat. “When you aspire to excellence, you don’t want to finish second.”

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