It’s fair to say that Ligat ha’Al, the Israeli premier football league, has not yet reached the level of quality displayed by its European counterparts.
This gap in quality, however, is slowly decreasing. This is largely due to the phenominal weekly performances of Hapoel Be’er Sheva, who have taken it upon themselves to dominate the league in recent years and leave their footprint on the European stage after a valiant Europa League run this season. A few years back, however, such success was a world away.
The 1997-98 season marked a dark time in Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s history, with relegation to the second division after a series of disappointing results. For two years, Hapoel failed to gain promotion back to the top flight, and eventually made a return to the top flight in 2001.
In 2005, after suffering much financial difficulties, Eli Zino, the club chairman, had to release a number of players which is speculated to be the reason for yet another relegation that season.
Thus the cycle repeated itself. Hapoel Be’er Sheva was once again stuck playing second division football, this time round for four years. At this point in time, it seemed that the chances for the club to return to it’s former glory had all but vanished. But then up stepped Alona Barkat, the woman who was about to change the fortune of the club in the most unimaginable way.
Having bought the club in 2007, Barkat saw Hapoel Be’er Sheva return to Ligat ha’Al in 2009, exactly two years since she made the purchase. This was largely accredited to her decision to hire Guy Levy as the clubs’ manager in 2008. Although the next season was a frustrating one, and included fans calling for her and Guy Azouri, the new manager, to resign, Barkat still overcame her initial decision to sell the club and persevered with her footballing ambitions.
After another few mediocre seasons, with league standings ranging from 8th to 13th place, Hapoel Be’er Sheva made the decisive breakthrough that started their journey to becoming the next great Israeli soccer team.
At the start of the 2013-14 season, Barkat decided to invest in an array of new talent, including current first team regulars Ben Bitton and Maor Buzaglo, as well as Elyaniv Barda, the current number 10. Such investments came to fruition with almost immediate effect, as Hapoel Be’er Sheva claimed second place in Ligat ha’Al, having only lost three matches all season prior to the top playoffs.
The 2014-15 season also proved to be one where Hapoel Be’er Sheva exceeded expectations, having finished second on the league table, and only dropping to third place after the playoff round. Such consistency is attributed to another round of wise transfers on the part of Barkat, including the purchase of Romanian midfielder Ovidiu Hoban. This would be the second season in a row where the club would qualify for the second round playoffs of the Europa League, thus marking the beginning of their European football journey.
2015-16 was the season that Alona Barkat made some of her most significant strategic decisions, which included the hiring of current coach Barack Bachar. This decision would prove to be one of the best moves Barkat could have possibly made, with the club’s biggest successes taking place under the guidance of Bachar in the coming years.
Maharan Radi, Anthony Nwakaeme, Shir Tzedek and former Chelsea and Espanyol striker Ben Sahar were subsequently signed by Barkat, and together with Bachar’s coaching, Hapoel Be’er Sheva were able to lift the Ligat ha’Al trophy; marking their first league win since 1976.
The 2016-17 season proved to be the most successful one yet for Alona Barkat and her team, as not only were they able to retain the league title, but they also made it into the round of 32 in the Europa League. This includes both home and away wins against Inter Milan, as well as leapfrogging Southampton to qualify from the group stages. Now, Hapoel Be’er Sheva has made a name for itself in national and European football alike, and the public’s expectations for this unique club have only increased.
So there you have it; the story of Alona Barkat and her journey to transform a second division side into national champions. With the odds stacked firmly against her, she rose above all her critics; whether they put her down because of being a woman in football, or simply because they were tired of supporting a losing side. Alona has become a hero for her club and country, and Israeli football is progressing because of it.