FOR SEVERAL days in May, a story dominated the local news in Israel that – unusually ‒ had nothing to do with politics, suspected corruption, terrorist attacks, Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the housing crisis, the price of tomatoes or the current heat wave. It was a sports story – though the real fascination wasn’t so much about soccer, but a soccer team, Hapoel Beersheba.
In a Cinderella tale, the team from the southern “backwater” city of Beersheba finally pulled itself out of decades in the second tier to the heights previously claimed almost solely by teams from wealthier Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and Haifa.
The dramatic winning game was played in Beersheba’s new stadium against Bnei Sakhnin, the team from the Arab town of Sakhnin in the Galilee, clinching its first Premier League title since 1976.
It was only the third championship won by Hapoel Beersheba since its founding in 1949. Media reports repeatedly proclaimed the cliché “40 years in the desert,” as the team’s fans and the entire Negev went slightly gaga in celebration.
For years, professional soccer has reflected many of the worst currents in Israeli society. Though nothing like the uncontrollable violence often on display in Europe, Israel has had its share of soccer violence and racism, most infamously with La Familia, the racist anti-Arab, anti-Muslim fan group of Beitar Jerusalem. Last summer, Beitar fans waved flags of the outlawed racist Kach party founded by assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane and threw flares and smoke bombs on to the pitch, hitting a goalkeeper during their club’s Europa League qualifier. At the end of the critical match in Beersheba, however, players on both sides embraced each other. There was no violence; the fans throughout the Negev, though ecstatic, were impeccably well-behaved. This is not something to be taken for granted.
“This championship was something that went far beyond soccer,” Beersheba Mayor Ruvik Danilovich wrote following the victory. “It has burst out of the boundaries of the world of sports and imparted important values that would be wellworth seeing internalized in Israeli society.”
If these remarks sound a bit grandiose for the occasion of a soccer championship, long-time Beersheba residents understand very well the transformation that has taken place in this city in the last few decades. Long perceived as a sleepy, rundown development town – a pit stop on the way to Eilat – Beersheba is a rapidly developing metropolis, with billions invested in private and public projects, a center of academia and culture, and is well on the way to becoming a major hi-tech hub focused on cyber technologies.
The transformation of Hapoel Beersheba is no little part of the city’s new self-image and urban optimism and a lesson in inspired management.
And in the machismo world of soccer, it’s been a woman who turned things around for the team, and by extension, the city’s positive self-image.
In 2007, Alona Barkat, with a background in hi-tech entrepreneurship and philanthropies, bought the financially languishing team for a mere $1.8 million. Pouring money into acquiring players, within two years she was credited with turning around a second- rate team, which was promoted from Israel’s second-tier division to its premier league, Ligat Ha’al, competing against the major teams of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem.
Barkat is the only woman owner of a sports team in Israel, and one of less than a handful in the world. At first, she was resented by the local fans not only as a woman, but also as an “interloper” from wealthy north Tel Aviv where she lives with her billionaire venture capitalist husband Eli Barkat, the brother of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat.
She declined to be interviewed for this article, but has been quoted in the past as saying that though being a woman raised a few eyebrows at the beginning, it is no longer an issue and now “I’m judged by results.” Alona Barkat grew up in an Orthodox family in Ashkelon, went to a religious school and then did a year of national service in lieu of the army. Now, completely secular, she owns an engine of secularism ‒ a soccer team that plays on Shabbat.
She and her husband lived and worked in California from 1996 to 2005, during which time she held several directorship positions in the state, including AIPAC and the Jewish Federation, and invested in the hi-tech magazine “Red Herring.” On her return to Israel, she became active in the Israel Venture Network dealing with educational initiatives and, in 2006, founded BRM Technologies, now known as BRM Group, which promotes academic research in technology and management.
One doesn’t buy a soccer team for profit, but rather for public relations. Yet, when Alona (as everyone refers to her in Beersheba) purchased Hapoel Beersheba almost a decade ago, she said she viewed the move as a tool for social change, and promoted projects with young people, including special education and youth-at-risk programs.
“Investment in a soccer club for children, especially in the periphery such as Beersheba, unites society, and the soccer club teaches how to play on a team, how to lose, how to gain, how to never give up,” she said in a press release.
But Barkat’s central challenge was making the team competitive. And that meant serious financial investment.
“Money does work in sports,” explains Guy Ben-Porat, associate professor in the Department of Public Policy and Administration at Ben-Gurion University. “One of the problems she faced was the reality of being in the periphery. It was often difficult to recruit players willing to come down south. If they could get a contract in the Tel Aviv area, they’d prefer to stay in the center of the country, so you had to pay more to get good players to come to Beersheba,” explains Ben-Porat, a dedicated fan.
And recruit Barkat did, greatly increasing the club’s talent, and not hesitating to fire managers when the team underperformed.
From the beginning, Barkat declared that she would not tolerate violence of any sort, neither from the players nor the fans. “There is no place for racism or intolerance in soccer,” she told the press. “Our team has Jews, Arabs, foreign Christians and we sign players according to merit, not their ethnic or religious background.” On several occasions, she nearly threw in the towel. Following a violent incident in 2010, she threatened to sell the club after fans terrorized the coach, but was ultimately persuaded to hang on when she received assurances of non-violent behavior from fan groups.
And indeed, the fan base, which had long held a reputation for intolerance, has changed beyond recognition. The gradual improvement of the team’s performance attracted a younger group of fans who were supportive and well-behaved.
One of these fans is Sol Fayerman-Hansen, director of partnerships for the National Cyber Education Center and Carasso Science Museum in Beersheba, and a member of the growing English-speaking community in the city.
“I’ve been a fan of the team since moving to Beersheba nine years ago,” he says. “Alona immediately started making deals with key players and positions when she took over and has really brought a change in the morale of the city. She’s well-loved and has done a lot for the city of Beersheba.”
Sol took his two-year-old daughter to the celebrations in the city center, where some 110,000 people showed up, following the victory. “The crowd was really excited, and it was a small area, but the event was handled quite well,” he says.
A key element in the evolution of the special quality of the team’s fans is the new 16,100-seat Turner Stadium, named for Yaakov Turner, the former mayor of Beersheba, which just opened this season. It replaced the old venue, a relic of the 1970s. According to political scientist Ben-Porat, the availability of a proper new stadium has had an enormous influence on the fans.
“When you come to a structure that is shabby and is unpleasant and unclean, without normal toilet facilities, it sends a message to the people," he explains. "You can change the behavior of people when the structures change. When you bring people into a new facility that is respectful of visitors and makes it a comfortable event, it gives people a different perspective on how they should behave.”
“I have to give huge thanks to the supporters of Hapoel Beersheba – there is no other group of spectators in the entire country like them,” enthused Mayor Danilovich at the city celebrations after the win. “We know there is incitement, we see what happens on the social networks, how much divisiveness and polarization there is in society, but look what’s happening here, Hapoel Beersheba fans applauding and cheering a Muslim player, Jew, Christian, white, black ‒ it doesn’t matter, we’re all human beings, we’re all God’s children.”
“This championship has brought great pride to the city,” declares Benzi Blumenfeld, the unofficial head of Hapoel Beersheba’s supporters for decades. “We always knew that the big money is in Tel Aviv, but Alona’s more modest money got us this far.” Always wearing a red shirt, the club’s color, “Benzi Hapoel Beersheba,” as he’s known, owns a modest newspaper kiosk in Beersheba’s old city, where he holds fort as the focus of fan analysis and cheers.
“Years ago people were a bit wild; they’d behave as if they were in some sort of war with the neighbors,” he says, though insisting that racism never played a part since Arab players were always on the team.
Though slowly undergoing gentrification, Beersheba’s old city section still exhibits remnants of the old Ottoman-era town. Benzi’s kiosk holds a prominent place on the main pedestrian street.
“The city was very small in 1976 when we won the championship,” recalls Benzi. “It was very family-oriented; every neighborhood had its own player on the team, every player was local, so the families and neighbors were personally involved.” These days, he says, few of the players are local, most have been brought in. “It took Alona a while to exert influence on the behavior of the team, but she learned the population of fans, and there have been fewer problems with them. Now the support has been overwhelming. You see kids and women, and older people going to the games. Everyone is excited.”
On stage at the victory celebration, Barkat said: “We came here nine years ago and wanted to build a club that would bring pride to the Negev. We always believed we might one day be the best team in Israel, even when we were in the second division.”
Then waxing uncharacteristically philosophical for a soccer team owner, she said that for her the 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, Yerucham, 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.”
In 2013, Ben-Gurion University presented Barkat with the prestigious Ben-Gurion Negev Award, for her work as “a visionary businesswoman who brought her skills, time and energy to the world of soccer and led the local team to excellence and remarkable achievements.” Watching her during the ceremony as she received the award dressed in the traditional robe and mortarboard was the entire Hapoel Beersheba team which had been given its own section of the auditorium. They all cheered… politely.