(photo credit: DANNY MAROM)
It was always about so much more than soccer for Alona Barkat.
When she purchased the Hapoel Beersheba soccer club a decade ago she didn’t do it so thousands of fans would shout her name in admiration or to make local sporting history. While the first has become a weekly occurrence and the second has been achieved on several occasions, for Barkat, being the owner of Beersheba is first and foremost about making a difference off the pitch.
“Hapoel Beersheba symbolizes so much more than soccer. The journey that the club and the city have experienced is amazing,” Barkat told The Jerusalem Post
“We represent all the citizens of Israel. We don’t have any issue with violence or racism and this is a wonderful things. To me, this is Israel at its best. This is Israel and this is Hapoel Beersheba.”
Barkat was invited to address a summit on combating the anti-Israel boycott movement at the UN earlier this year and she believes that underscores the power of sport.
“People don’t understand what a difference this can make. Usually Israel’s image is very negative and all of a sudden you show people a different side,” explains Barkat. “I always say that soccer is a means. A means through which to reach people. In a way, soccer is the melting pot of Israeli society. It unites so many people from different backgrounds and that allows you to achieve amazing things.”
Barkat purchased Hapoel Beersheba 10 years ago and has brought about a remarkable change in the club’s fortunes.
Barkat didn’t only revitalize the once failing club, leading it to a first league title in 40 years and then to another last season. She completely reinvented it.
Beersheba, which will also be playing in the Europa League group stage for a second straight season, went from being an under-performing team playing in a dilapidated stadium with troublesome fans to being a model club that lives up to the highest expectations, moving into a state-of-the-art stadium two years ago and with arguably the best supporters in the country.
It has been a long and arduous process, with Barkat and her husband Eli – who made his initial fortune with his brother and current Jerusalem mayor Nir as investors in IT security company CheckPoint – very nearly giving up on several occasions. But the most atypical owner in Israeli soccer – and not just because she is the only woman – remained committed in her actions and multi-million shekel funding, overcoming her many doubters and critics.
“When we first bought the club we thought about how perhaps we would like to win the championship one day, but it would have been ridiculous to announce,” says Barkat. “But every sportsman aspires for the top. You hope that you will achieve it in your lifetime. We always knew we were coming for the long run, but we didn’t know how long it would take.”
In 1952, Hapoel Beersheba was told that it could no longer play in the Israeli league due to the city’s distance from other centers of population coupled with the young country’s poor transport infrastructure.
The team has seemingly played with a chip on its shoulder ever since, as if it always has something to prove. The club previously peaked under the guidance of Amatzia Levkovich in the mid-1970s, winning two straight championships in 1974/75 and 1975/76, while also having one State Cup triumph to its name from 1997.
There had been precious little success to celebrate since, at least until Barkat finally came along, but Beersheba is finally back on top and the owner wants that to inspire every child in Israel.
“I don’t want anyone to ever feel second to someone,” states Barkat. “Anyone can realize his dream. It might take 10 years, but you will eventually realize your dream no matter where you live. Success doesn’t depend on geography. It depends on how much you believe in yourself and how patient you are willing to be. And that is the story of Hapoel Beersheba.”
It is hard to overstate the change Barkat has brought to a city, a region, and in certain instances, to a country, through Hapoel Beersheba.
One such example can be seen in research conducted by Aaron Cohen of the University of Haifa. It showed how the success of the club gave Beersheba residents a greater sense of self-belief and had an overall positive impact on their lives.
“I’m so proud of what we have managed to achieve with the club. The cooperation between players from different backgrounds and religions is amazing to me,” adds Barkat.
“I want all children to know that if they believe in themselves and have patience, they can realize their dream. I think Hapoel Beersheba has shown every child in Israel that this is possible.”
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