When he founded Hapoel Kiryat Shmona FC, Izzy Sheratzky joked one day they would be in the UEFA Champions League; 13 years on, the Israeli leaders' ambition is no joke.
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"When I founded the club I said that one day we would reach the Champions League," said Hapoel Kiryat Shmona FC owner Izzy Sheratzky. "I was joking, but you know that every joke has some truth in it."
Israel's northernmost city, Kiryat Shmona was once famous largely as a conflict zone, prone to rocket attacks from southern Lebanon, but under coach Ran Ben Shimon, the now peaceable town of 21,000 is making a bid to become the nation's footballing capital. Kiryat Shmona top the Israeli table with 52 points, ten clear of second-placed Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC, having lost just once in 23 games.
Israel's big four – Maccabi Tel-Aviv FC, Hapoel Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa FC and Beitar Jerusalem FC – have monopolised the title since 1998/99, when Hapoel Haifa FC, captained by a younger Ben Shimon, took the crown, and the 41-year-old may be about deliver another blow to the establishment. Once edgy about his side being seen as title contenders, Ben Shimon is proudly stating: "We are going for the championship."
Founded in 2000 with the merger of Hapoel Kiryat Shmona FC and Maccabi Kiryat Shmona FC, the team's key strength was identified by Tel Aviv millionaire Sheratzky – who made his fortune by making devices to track stolen vehicles. "
It's not what we have, it's what we don't have – ego," he said. Their 26-man squad is dominated by homegrown players, and features just four foreigners – including Argentinian David Solari, brother of former Real Madrid CF winger Santiago Solari. Captain Adrian Rochet, 24, explained: "We have one star in the team and it's the coach."
That star man is renowned for his motivational skills, and his ability to come up with killer quotes for the local press. After Kiryat Shmona claimed a second successive Israeli League Cup a few weeks back, beating Hapoel Tel-Aviv in a penalty shoot-out, the former defender wittily discouraged his side from celebrating too much with the words: "
Don't shout bingo until you have completed a line."
The winner of 34 caps for Israel, he knows things can change quickly. He led Kiryat Shmona into the top division in 2006/07, and earned a UEFA Cup place with a bronze medal finish the following season. Such achievements led to his appointment as Maccabi Tel-Aviv coach at the start of 2008/09, but he lasted just eight games before being dismissed. He returned to Kiryat Shmona before the end of the campaign, but could not stave off relegation.
However, that is when the fairy tale really began. The Pride of the North bounced back, winning promotion in 2009/10, finishing fourth in the top tier in 2010/11 and now pushing for the title. After they won the League Cup, Sheratzky promised his players tickets for this season's UEFA Champions League final in Munich. When reporters joked that his team might one day reach the final as players, he laughed, but maybe this joke has some truth in it too.