It was always about so much more than soccer for Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat.
Beersheba’s Premier League championship triumph this past weekend was the culmination of the revival of the team’s fortunes under her stewardship, which began back in the summer of 2007.
Barkat, however, didn’t only revitalize the once failing club, leading it to a first league title in 40 years – she completely reinvented it.
Beersheba went from being an under-performing team, playing in a dilapidated stadium with troublesome fans to being a model club which lives up to the highest expectations, moving into a state-of-the-art stadium last year and with arguably the best supporters in the country.
It has been a long and arduous process, with Barkat 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.
Ultimately, it came down to patience.
How easy it would have been for Barkat to throw in the white towel long ago. The wife of Eli Barkat – who made his initial fortune with brother and current Jerusalem mayor, Nir, as investors in IT security company Check Point – probably didn’t know what she was getting herself into in July 2007 when she finalized an agreement to purchase the club, then languishing in the second- tier National League.
An Ashkelon native and Tel Aviv resident, Barkat had no real previous connection with Beersheba and experienced few moments of joy in the city during her first six years as owner.
But after making practically every mistake in the book, Barkat’s perseverance finally paid off.
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 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 peaked under the guidance of Amatzia Levkovich in the mid-1970’s, winning two straight championships in 1974/75 and 1975/76, while also having one State Cup triumph to its name, from 1997.
There has been precious little success to celebrate since, but Beersheba is finally back on top and Barkat wants that to inspire every child in Israel.
“We came here nine years ago and wanted to build a club that would bring pride to the Negev,” she said on stage during the team’s celebrations with an estimated 100,000 fans on Monday night.
“But the truth is that for me this championship is only a means to an end. Our true goal is to prove to every child in our amazing country, whether he lives in Dimona, Yeruham, Rahat or Karmiel, that dreams can come true. No one has a monopoly on success, no city, no sector and no religion. All you need is perseverance, faith, will and patience and then your dreams will really come true.”
Barkat knows better than most how excruciating the course can be, but she stuck to it. It took the chauvinistic world of Israeli soccer some time to get used to its first-ever female owner, but it quickly became apparent that Barkat’s heart was in the right place and that she had every intention of backing up her words with actions.
Barakt invested heavily in the club’s youth department and in 2009 the team looked to be on the rise once more when it was promoted to the Premier League.
However, it all turned sour yet again the following season.
Barkat announced in March 2010 that she had decided to leave the club after a vocal, yet small minority of the team’s supporters, terrorized the coach in an unprecedented manner.
Beersheba fans had long held a reputation for intolerance and unrealistic expectations, resulting in 14 different coaches guiding the team since the turn of the century until current coach Barak Bachar was hired last summer.
Six years ago, matters completely got out of hand when then-coach Guy Azuri was driven off the road by so-called fans. Azuri resigned shortly afterwards, saying he had no intention of risking his life for the job.
Barkat was ultimately persuaded to remain at the club, which has since changed beyond recognition.
Most of the team’s current fans had been living off the club’s glorious past from stories passed down the generations after being given very few reasons to smile over the last two decades.
It was just three years ago that Beersheba only avoided relegation to the National League in the final weekend of the season.
One of the major turning points in the club’s fortunes arrived shortly after that frustrating campaign.
After six seasons at Genk in Belgium, the then 32-year-old Elyaniv Barda decided to return to his boyhood club after much persuasion by Barkat.
Barda, who made 196 appearances across all competitions at Genk, scoring 67 goals – the most ever at the club by a foreign player – began his career at Beersheba in 1998, going on to play for Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv before moving to Belgium.
Barkat handed Barda a lucrative threeyear contract, and his addition broke the glass ceiling for Beersheba, which had struggled to attract big names in previous years.
Just a few days after unveiling Barda, Beersheba announced the signing of Israel international Maor Buzaglo, luring him back home from Belgium, and the team has gone from strength to strength ever since.
Barkat wasn’t afraid to part ways with coach Elisha Levy after three seasons last year, believing the team needed a change to take that extra step forward.
Bachar has been a resounding success.
He wasn’t even born when the club claimed its previous championship. But at the age of 36 he became the youngest coach to guide a team to the local league title in 37 years, with Beersheba going unbeaten over 29 matches at one stage, ultimately edging three-time defending champion Maccabi Tel Aviv to the title.
“This is what we prayed for and hoped for,” said Barkat. “It was difficult and took a long time but we did it.”
After years of suffering, the future is looking as bright as the desert sun for Hapoel Beersheba. And all thanks to one woman.