Tomorrow 24th July the returns of the Champions League qualifiers second round are on the menu. After a few weeks without football in between the Euro 2012 won by the Spanish "Furia Roja" and the new European season, the football addict in myself is becoming excited, very excited. Because after all I prefer to see obscure teams I haven’t seen before, from idyllic locations such as Iceland, Georgia, Lithuania, … rather than seeing Barcelona face Chelsea yet another time. The early qualifiers for the Champions League thus feed the iconoclastic football fan in me. However, I am also a fan of Scandinavian and Middle Eastern football. So tomorrow my eyes will head East to see if Israeli champions Kiryat Shmona can overcome a 1-0 defeat from last week against Zilina.
Kiryat Shmona indeed! There used to be many years that Israeli football was predictable and dominated by the "Big Four": Beitar Jerusalem, Hapoel and Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and Maccabi Haifa. Only rarely other teams used to grasp a trophy. The last years though brought a remarkable change in which only Hapoel Tel-Aviv and Maccabi Haifa could retain their status as top teams (both played Champions League football the last couple of years). Beitar, struck by financial problems, even ended up in the relegation playoffs and even though they secured their top flight status easily, European football is far away from the Holy City. Maccabi Tel-Aviv is on a slow way back to the top but has not won anything in years. New teams took over those status as top teams. First of all we have Bnei Yehuda Tel-Aviv. The third team from Tel-Aviv, deeply rooted in the slum of HaTikva in the outskirts of the city, is still small in comparison to the other teams in the city in terms of history and numbers of fans. But their fans are very passionate and the team secured European football several years in a row now. And last year, out of nowhere, a team from Kiryat Shmona won the Israeli Premier League and now faces the CL qualifiers. Few would have expected that one.
Kiryat Shmona (קִרְיַת שְׁמוֹנָה ) is a relatively small city in the northernmost corner of Israel. According to Wikipedia, the city only has just over 23000 people. What a contrast to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. Kiryat Shmona is the northernmost city of Israel and is closer to the (closed) border with Lebanon than to any important Israeli city. The border with Lebanon, almost always closed, is only 2 km away at its nearest and 5 km at its furthest. Lebanon is almost right next to Kiryat Shmona, while any other Israeli city is a relatively long drive away. The city has been a target in many conflicts between Israel and Lebanon. Let’s just say UEFA will not like the idea of European football in a location like that, and add to that that the Ironi Stadium (Ironi means "town" in Hebrew, "ir" means city) has only just over 5000 capacity. This means no European clashes near the Lebanese border, I assume the team will move its European games to either Haifa (the closest acceptable stadium) or Tel Aviv (a long distance away from the town but hosting the only two stadiums that can host a large crowd). The city name translates as "City of the Eight", referring to the 8 people who died in defense of the Tel Hai in 1920 (the city can be seen from the Tel Hai hill). Surrounding Kiryat Shmona are only some small villages and kibbutzim. One of those villages is Metulla (מְטֻלָּה) which is the absolute northernmost tip of Israel north of Kiryat Shmona. This tiny town hosts the closed border crossing HaGader HaTova with Lebanon (Fatima Gate).
Indeed, not the place you’d expect would ever deliver an Israeli football champion beating all teams from big cities such as Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel-Aviv underway. Kiryat Shmona is even the smallest town or city in Israel to have a team in the highest tier of Israeli football.
Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona FC (מועדון כדורגל הפועל עירוני קרית שמונה) was formed by a merger of 2 teams in 2000. Businessman Izzy Sheratzky was the person behind this succesful merger. Hapoel Kiryat Shmona was founded in 1953 but as far as I could retrieve never reached beyond the second highest division. At the time of the merger it was fading away in the 4th division. In 2000 it merged with Maccabi Kiryat Shmona to form the current club. The name Hapoel was retained (and the new club continued to play in their stadium) and the Ironi (meaning "town" or in this context "municipality") was added to the club name. Hapoel played in Liga Alef, I found contradicting info whether this was 3rd or 4th level at the time of the merger (it is 3rd level now). It seems it was 4th level at the time of the merger but due to restructuring became third level later. Maccabi at the time of the merger was even in lower league level: Liga Bet, now the fourth tier of Israeli football.
The newly created club started in Liga Alef but reached the top division of Israeli football in rapid tempo. Two promotions in the first two years after the merger saw Kiryat Shmona reach the second level of the Israeli football pyramid. In the season 2003-04 the club narrowly missed out on a third promotion in a row, only finishing third below Nazareth Ilit on goal difference. The club thus came close to the surreal achievement of promoting straight from Division 4 to Premier Division with 3 promotions in 3 years. The fairytale narrowly failed to be completed although nobody will have complained about what the new club had achieved. Whether fans had accepted the merger and embraced the new club is unclear to me as we speak of 12 years ago, but the good performances will certainly have helped. The northern outpost near the Lebanese border suddenly was on the Israeli football map. In 2007 the fairytale continued: the club earned promotion to the top division and won the Toto Cup for second division teams. For anyone who never heard of Kiryat Shmona, the town was now for sure on the map of the Israeli football fans.
The club continued to rise and rise as in their first season in the top division, they finished third and qualified for Europe. FK Mogren was knocked out in the UEFA Cup qualifiers, before falling to Litex Lovech from Bulgaria. The games were played in Haifa for practical and probably also security reasons. After all, as said, the border with Lebanon is just a 2 km away from the town…
The fairytale seemed to drastically end though a few years later. In 2009 suddenly the club found themselves finishing bottom of the league and dropping back to the second level. Those who thought the long drives to the northern outpost were over cursed the next season when the team immediately promoted back. That season the club also again won the second division teams edition of the Toto Cup. The next year success continued as the Toto Cup premier division edition was won in 2011. Never before in Israel a team won the second division edition of the cup to win the premier division edition the next year. The club succesfully defended their Toto Cup in 2012 and realised the thing that many would have thought was impossible: the team won the Israeli championship. They entered the Championship Playoffs with a large gap and never saw the title under threat during those playoffs.
It was 2 April 2012 when Ironi secured the championship in a 0-0 draw against the last year’s champions, Hapoel Tel-Aviv. The change of power was now complete. The achievement was incredible. At the time of the merger, both clubs were in the lower leagues of the Israeli football. 12 years later, the club won 4 cups and was the first team from outside the 3 big cities in approx. 30 years to win the Israeli championship. Add to that the small size of city and low population numbers and the teams they had to overcome on their way, and this success is close to incredible. The club realised something nobody with a sane mind would have thought was possible when two amateur teams from a small town near the Lebanese border merged in 2000.
To show the dominance of the team last season: the regular season was won with 17 points (!!) more than runner-up and defending champions Hapoel Tel-Aviv. At the end of the Championship Playoffs the gap was 14 points. Ironi won it, and they did it in an extremely dominant way.
The Israeli football landscape changed. Last season Maccabi Tel-Aviv once again missed out on all important trophies and failed to grab a European spot. Maccabi Haifa, powerhouses in Israel, finished 5th and also failed to qualify for Europe. Beitar Jerusalem didn’t even qualify for the Championship playoffs. Instead, the Israeli honour in the Champions League qualifiers will now be defended by a small club from a 23000 citizens small city near the Lebanese border in the absolute northernmost outskirts of the country. Instead of reaching the news because of unrest near the border, Kiryat Shmona is now in the news as defending the Israeli league’s honour in the Champions League qualifiers. Some jealousy may be part of the fans of the previously named "Big Four" when tomorrow Kiryat Shmoni has to defend the Israeli honours, but knowing what this club realised it is hard not to wish them well: in just 12 years an amateur club from a small town became the team that won cups, a championship and now is in the running to qualify for the biggest club tournament in European football. Slovak club MŠK Žilina has to be overcome tomorrow. The reward if succesful is an encounter with Neftchi (Azerbaijan) or Zestafoni (Georgia) in the next qualifying round. Which should be a realistic opponent to overcome. But first, tomorrow, Zilina. Mazel tov! But whatever the outcome, the achievement of the club will be huge, as they already achieved something surreal. So everything now is a bonus. So indeed, mazel tov!