Sinai Says: Alona Barkat pilots Beersheba with keen sense of purpose and place

Barkat believes in first taking care of the small details and practices what she preaches.

Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat is not settling for two consecutive Premier League championships, targeting a place in the Champions League group stage next season. (photo credit: DANNY MARON)
Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat is not settling for two consecutive Premier League championships, targeting a place in the Champions League group stage next season.
(photo credit: DANNY MARON)
There is one thing conspicuously missing from Alona Barkat’s Tel Aviv office.
Considering the time, money and emotion Barkat has invested in Hapoel Beersheba since purchasing the club a decade ago, it would be fair to expect her office to at least include some hint that she actually owns the club.
While other club bosses might choose to place a trophy cabinet in their work place, especially if their club is the two-time defending Premier League champion, Barkat remains focused on the substance of her position rather than its bravado.
She doesn’t spend that much time in her office anyway, with the club’s many community initiatives seeing her travel throughout the country, not to mention her many trips to Beersheba.
Barkat is not afraid of getting her hands dirty. That is, in fact, her favorite part of the job. She believes in first taking care of the small details and practices what she preaches.
An example of this can be seen in a recent visit Barkat paid to Druze leader, Sheikh Mowafak Tarif, in Julis in the North of Israel.
Barkat is a firm believer in co-existence between all religions and a long drive up north is the last thing that will deter her. She also made the most of the drive to strengthen her relationship with the team’s fans.
She spent two hours on the phone explaining to the leaders of the different fan club’s about the importance of stopping the use of firecrackers in the stadium during the team’s matches. It is not only dangerous, but also leads to disciplinary action by UEFA and the Israel Football Association which ends up costing the club tens of thousands of shekels in fines, Barkat told them.
Barkat is a firm believer in dialogue and transparency, and that has played a major role in the dramatic overhaul the club has undergone under her stewardship.
The 48-year-old wife of Eli Barkat – who made his initial fortune with brother and current Jerusalem mayor, Nir, as investors in IT security company Check-Point – 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 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 two years ago and with arguably the best supporters in the country.
“There was a lack of trust from the supporters, who no longer believed in the club,” Barkat told The Jerusalem Post of her first days in Beersheba.
“After years of promises, our fans felt that it is very difficult to achieve success in the geographical periphery of Israel. They felt you can only be successful in the center of the country. We had to work in order to convince the fans that it is possible to succeed, even though it will take some time.
“From the first moment we made a decision that we will do everything in cooperation with them,” explained Barkat. “When I say Hapoel Beersheba is a family, that isn’t a cliché. We do everything transparently. They know we run the club, but they also know that we are open for dialogue. It is very important for us that they will know what is happening at the club and understand the processes we are undergoing.”
It is easy to forget now, but Barkat’s reign has also included some very low moments. Perhaps none worse than the day in March 2010 when Barkat announced 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.
Then-coach Guy Azuri was driven off the road by disgruntled fans and resigned shortly afterwards, saying he had no intention of risking his life for the job. Barkat was unwilling to accept such behavior and knew she had to make a stand.
“Even on the day on the crisis we came out with a very clear message. And the fans made a clear decision to follow suit and we grew from that place,” said Barkat.
Even while registering unprecedented success over the past couple of years, Beersheba has experienced disappointment. The scar from heartbreakingly missing out on the Champions League group stage last month will not heal quickly.
Beersheba’s dream of qualifying for continental club soccer’s most prestigious stage for the first time in its history was dashed when it was knocked out in the playoffs by Slovenian champion NK Maribor on away goals. Hapoel entered the second leg with a 2-1 lead, but couldn’t complete the job, losing 1-0 in Slovenia. The tie ended at 2-2 on aggregate, but Maribor advanced thanks to its goal at Turner Stadium in the first leg.
By virtue of reaching the playoffs, Beersheba received a place in the Europa League group stage as a consolation prize, just as it did last season, a positive Barkat was keen to emphasize in her rare message to the fans after the match.
“It’s a roller-coaster. We, as management, need to keep our focus and balance even when it is tough. We need to always challenge ourselves to take the club to the next level,” she said. “We were centimeters away from reaching the Champions League group stage. We dreamed about it and we really wanted to qualify. It was very, very disappointing. But when the match ended the fans didn’t stop cheering the players.
“The players were crying and the coach couldn’t speak because he was choking up. So we decided that I would speak to the media and explain that while we are very disappointed, this is the second straight year we will be playing in the Europa League group stage and that is an amazing achievement we shouldn’t forget. I gave the players a similar message in the dressing room. These moments are tough, but you have to show leadership and try to lift the players and the fans.”
Barkat also promised in her message that the club will one day reach the group stage. That would be considered a bold statement by most owners, but in Barkat’s case, and when one bears in mind all she has already accomplished, it does seem all but inevitable.
“It wasn’t our time so we have to work harder,” explained Barkat. “We always have plans for three years forward and we need to make sure we continue our journey the way we have started it. We need to remain grounded and first and foremost be good and humble people. That is what Hapoel Beersheba is all about.”