Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona won the Israeli soccer championship for the first time in its history on Monday, completing a league and cup double for the low-budget team from a tiny northern city in only its second season back in the top flight.
Having already won the Toto Cup in January, Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona drew 0-0 at home with Hapoel Tel Aviv for an unassailable 16-point lead over second-place Hapoel Tel Aviv in the league with only five rounds left.
It is just the second time in more than two decades that a team outside the “big four” of Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem have claimed the championship. Those sides have won the past 12 titles and 20 out of the past 21.
“This is undoubtedly the best moment in my career so far,” forward Shimon Abuhatzeira said. “We overcame many things on the way … We worked hard and today everyone saw we could do it. I am so happy that today (the title) is finally in our hands.”
Fireworks filled the sky above Ironi Stadium as the players celebrated the title win in front of about 4,000 fans.
“It is one of the most incredible championships in Israeli history, in my opinion,” striker Barak Badash told Channel 1 television. “I am the happiest man in the world.”
Kiryat Shmona is a working-class city of 23,000 people that has been plagued by financial woes and is less than two miles from the Lebanese border, thus primarily being known domestically as a frequent target of Hezbollah rocket fire.
Incredibly, Hapoel Ironi is now only two qualifying rounds away from playing in next season’s Champions League and potentially playing against Barcelona, Manchester United or Bayern Munich.
After beating Hapoel Tel Aviv in the final of the Toto Cup, the first major tournament of the season, Kiryat Shmona lost only three league games all season.
Kiryat Shmona benefited from unusually weak campaigns from the “big four,” with Hapoel Tel Aviv proving to be the team’s only serious challenger for most of the season.
Hapoel Tel Aviv was recently docked three points because of fan violence and a post-match player brawl, dropping the team further behind Kiryat Shmona in the standings.
Much of the credit for Kiryat Shmona’s success belongs to owner Izzy Sheratzky, a millionaire from Tel Aviv who made his money in Global Positioning System devices that help track stolen cars. He founded the club 10 years ago and has since invested heavily in the city.
The team rose steadily through the lower Israeli leagues in the early 2000s, but the real turnaround came in 2006 when Sheratsky recruited former Maccabi Tel Aviv defender Ran Ben-Shimon to be the team’s head coach.
Ben-Shimon led the team to promotion to top flight by winning the second-division title in 2007. Although it was relegated after two seasons, Kiryat Shmona returned last year.
The current squad is Solari primarily made up of homegrown Israeli players and includes six Israeli Arabs. Serbian defender Dusan Matovic and Argentine striker David Solari are among the few foreigners.
Solari, the brother of former Real Madrid midfielder Santiago Solari, has scored five goals since moving from Cypriot side Alki Larnaca in January.
Another standout has been Israeli forward Abuhatzeira, who has scored 14 goals this season, while captain Adrian Rochet has anchored the midfield.