A few months after Hapoel Kiryat Shmona FC stunned Israeli football, the northern outfit are still looking for recognition.
In only their 12th season since forming from a merger of two local sides, Kiryat Shmona became the first team from outside Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa to win the league title for nearly 30 years. Though they are yet to earn a big-club reputation, that could all change in their maiden UEFA Champions League campaign. Having overturned a first-leg deficit against MŠK Žilina in the second qualifying round, Hapoel must now overcome Neftçi PFK to reach the play-offs, hosting the Azerbaijani side on Wednesday.
Despite the new European challenge, the squad remains familiar from the championship season with the arrival of just Darko Tasevski from PFC Levski Sofia and Kecskeméti TE's László Lencse. "We have a texture in the squad which is the most important thing," said club founder and chairman Izzy Sheratzky of his procurement policy. "I'd buy a player like Lionel Messi only if I thought he would add something to this web."
Though the playing staff is intact, coach Ran Ben Shimon left for AEK Larnaca FC in Cyprus, making way for Gil Landau, who last season was relegated at the helm of Hapoel Petach-Tikva FC. "I have already been told that after the championship the only way is down," he said. "We want to show we are not a flash in the pan and want to preserve a permanent place in the top flight."
Striker Barak Badash said: "We have the same method – the only difference is the coach. The Champions League anthem is running through my head." Some pundits in Israel still doubt the ability of Kiryat Shmona to shine again but their united squad have other ideas.