A desert city moves from the periphery to center stage

With patience, hard work and the right investments on the soccer pitch and beyond, Beersheba is becoming a vibrant equal to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Alona Barkat (photo credit: DANNY MAROM)
Alona Barkat
(photo credit: DANNY MAROM)
''What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Beersheba?”

I asked passersby and coffee shop clients this question in a street survey a year ago in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, ahead of Hapoel Beersheba’s European Champions League qualifications fixture against the Scottish club Celtic.

“It’s a hole in the wall,” said one girl with disdain. “It’s not Tel Aviv!” added another. A man in his late 30s told me: “The army. I passed through the central bus station there frequently during my Army service.”

Other responses ranged from: “It’s full of arsim [hooligans] and Beduin” to “There’s a university there, no?” and frequently concluded with another assumed presence – camels.

Beyond the stereotypes and stigma that have long been associated with the Negev capital, the average person in Israel’s two largest metropolitan areas knows little about a city with more than 200,000 people only an hour’s drive away.

“Beersheba is a city of soccer. Everyone there is passionate about it,” a man at the Arlozoroff bus station told me after I had almost given up asking people.

“You’re the first to answer that!” I said. “How would you compare Beersheba, in terms of soccer, to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem?”

“Beersheba and Hapoel Beersheba are no longer on the periphery; they are another center,” he answered – and he is right.

A club that is a city

Both the team and the city are experiencing a major transformation. Hapoel Beersheba has emerged as a superpower in Israeli soccer, winning titles and representing the country in European competitions. The city has become a busy cosmopolitan hub of some 220,000 people, and another 100,000 come to work, learn and shop in the city every day.

It wasn’t always like that.

Despite its biblical roots (Abraham’s well) and the fact that it was the only city that the Ottoman Turks founded while ruling this area, Beersheba was for years a poor and undeveloped backwater town.

Located in the Negev desert, surrounded by Beduin tribes and populated mainly by immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East, it wasn’t as bohemian as Tel Aviv, as productive as Haifa or as symbolic as Jerusalem. The amount of state-funded and other investment it attracted was much less than Israel’s other big cities.

Hapoel Beersheba was founded in 1949, after the War of Independence, by Zalman Casspi, who gathered players from the city’s ma’abarot (immigrant transit camps). The Israel Soccer Association balked at admitting Hapoel Beersheba to the league, claiming that no teams would agree to travel so far down south to the city.

It took six years for the Israel Soccer Association to finally admit the club to the Israeli third division. Slowly the team climbed up in the leagues’ ranks, and finally qualified to the National League (then the premier soccer competition in Israel) in 1965. Meanwhile, the first hospital in the city, Soroka, was built and later on the Negev University (today’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev) was also founded. The city and team were apparently progressing at a similar pace.

The 1970s marked the first golden era of Hapoel Beersheba. In the 1973/74 season, under the guidance of coach Amatzia Levkovich, the club won its first-ever championship title in front of a record crowd of 20,000 fans in the old Vasermil Stadium. A year later, the team did it again. Suddenly the focus of Israel’s soccer was Beersheba, thanks to Levkovich and players like Eliyahu Ofer, Meir Barad and Ronnie Moskowitz.

The glory didn’t last long. The next 15 years were an undistinguished blur for the club. The city continued to grow in terms of population, but infrastructure and commercial development were sluggish. Beersheba may have been the center of the South, but it remained a remote place, tenuously connected with the rest of the country.

The 1990s brought a wave of change. With massive immigration from ex-Soviet countries, the city’s population and urban area almost doubled. By providing municipal services for the rest of the towns in the region, it turned into a regional nerve center.

The club expanded its base, attracting fans and players from the nearby towns and villages, articulating a more comprehensive identity of a team that represents the whole area, not just the city. The club won the interest and loyalty of new population segments by signing Arab players such as Hisham Zoabi, Shukri al-Ukbi and Sahfik al-Huzayel.

In 1995, the team participated in the European UEFA Cup for the first time in its history, hosting top European teams as FC Barcelona from Spain and Dutch club Roda. The professional differences between Beersheba and its European rivals were huge. Barcelona beat it  7-0 and Roda crushed it 10-0, which didn’t enhance the image of the club or the city within Israeli soccer circles and the larger society. The media portrayed Beersheba as an embarrassing representative of Israel, highlighting its peripheral role in the sport and the country.

Two years later, the club won its first-ever Israeli State Cup after a victory over the champions Maccabi Tel Aviv. The club, then owned by local businessman Eli Zino, had a spectacular season, thanks to young, aspiring coach Eli Guttman and two Balkan players – Croatian Giovanni Rosso and Bosnian Sead Halilovich. The image of team captain Stav Elimelech lifting the trophy and shaking president’s Ezer Weizman’s hand, became a symbol of hope for Beersheba.

Unfortunately, glory again was transient. In the following (1997/98) season, on the last match day, Hapoel Beersheba was relegated to the second division for the first time in 27 years. Fan reaction was emotional, heartbreaking and violent. Hapoel Beersheba, their only source of pride, disappeared from Israeli soccer’s main stage. The self-image of the fans, the club and the city suffered badly.

It took several years until the team got promoted again in the new millennium, but it was demoted again in 2005. By then the fans were furious with the way Zino managed the club and protested vociferously. Game attendance was dwindling. Those who did show up felt deprived, angry and inferior, crying over their beloved club that was floundering. On the verge of bankruptcy, Hapoel Beersheba seemed poised to disband.

Then, in 2007, Alona Barkat bought the club, and things started changing drastically.

Queen Barkat

In 2004, businesswoman Alona Barkat was working on founding a research program in Tel Aviv University, and considered getting involved with the Maccabi Tel Aviv soccer team. Taking advice from Eli Alaluf, then head of the Rashi Foundation and a notable figure in Beersheba, she changed her plans, and bought Hapoel Beersheba from Eli Zino.

For the first time, a woman became an owner of a men’s soccer club – in, of all places, the peripheral, remote underdog city of Beersheba with its failing team.

Barkat, who grew up in Ashkelon, invested massively in the club, correcting old habits and setting the cornerstones for a modern professional soccer organization. Together with her husband Eli, brother of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and a top hi-tech investor and founder who remains active “behind the scenes,” she garnered support and sponsorships from local businesses.

In addition, Barkat demanded that all players live in the city or in one of its surrounding towns.

“The players will be more committed to the cause if they live in this area,” she said in one of her first interviews for the media. “This will help consolidate the new identity of this club – which will integrate with the emerging identity of this city.”

The reception she received from the fans was outstanding. “The Queen of the Desert,” “The Princess of Beersheba” and “the Messiah” were among the nicknames conferred on her by local passionate soccer fans.

Barkat’s professional impact on the team wasn’t immediate; nothing comes easy for Hapoel Beersheba. The team won promotion to the Israeli Premier League in 2009, but after one stable season again found itself in survival mode. They were playing badly and losing to mediocre teams, so the fans decided to act.

After another disappointing result in their old Vasermil stadium, a 2-2 draw with Akhi Nazareth, a rival in the relegation zone, some fans followed the coach, Guy Azuri, by car, forced him to stop his vehicle and verbally attacked him with spitting and curses.

Furious about the incident, Barkat called a news conference at which she threatened to walk away. “He felt threatened,” she said. “This was crossing a red line and I couldn’t accept that.”

The fans, understanding that Barkat was probably their last hope for a better future for their beloved club, got the message, changed their attitude and returned to support the team, this time stronger than ever.

In those years, rockets from Gaza were raining upon the South and upon Beersheba specifically. The team was struggling in the league, fighting relegation. It was a challenge for Barkat to attract good players to the club.  In a smart move, Barkat called Elyaniv Barda, a homegrown Beersheba player who was ending an outstanding career in Belgian club Genk, and asked him to join her revolution in his hometown. He agreed, and this attracted other soccer stars, such as Maor Buzaglo, to sign for the club.

Things began to look promising.

After 40 years in the desert

The progress the club has made in those years wasn’t the only thing moving forward in the city.

Under the leadership of new young mayor Rubik Danilovich, Beersheba began progressing in terms of education, culture and hi-tech. Ben-Gurion University grew to more than 20,000 students and became a leading center for engineering studies; a brand new hi-tech park was built, attracting companies like Wix, PayPal and Google. Art galleries opened in the Old City and the local theater was renovated. Beersheba was booming – and so was the local soccer scene.

The team was experiencing respectable seasons in the top league, finishing second, third and again second respectively, with Elisha Levy as coach. The team became a fixture in the top spots of Israeli soccer and added the prestige and flair to the city’s development and changes. In addition, cooperation between the municipality and the club made possible the construction of an impressive new stadium to replace the decrepit Vasermil.

The modern 16,000-seat Turner Stadium was inaugurated in 2015, and the young and talented coach Barak Bachar replaced Levy as the main figure in Barkat’s project. It was at this point that the club’s fortune changed and a Cinderella story emerged.

The new stadium attracted more fans – even women and youngsters – as a different and more energized spirit took hold. Following a long season and protracted battle with Maccabi Tel Aviv, the reigning champions with three straight titles, Beersheba won the championship on the last day of the 2015/16 season, 40 years after the victory of Amatzia Levkovich. The streets of the desert city were festooned in red and white as 100,000 people went out to celebrate.

Nine years after Alona Barkat acquired the team and invested money, patience and wisdom, Hapoel Beersheba brought pure happiness to its city, underscoring the metamorphosis that the city was going through, no longer an inconsequential periphery but a new “center.”

It didn’t stop there. The next season, the team nearly qualified for the UEFA Champions League, and made a terrific run the Europa League, beating Italian club Inter Milano home and away, making it to the final 32 in the competitions. In Israel, the team opened a significant chasm between itself and its competitors and won a second title in a row, cementing its transition into a soccer mega-power – the best team in the country.

The Future is Red

This season, the club targeted the Champions League stage as its main goal.

Despite a positive run in the qualifications, where the club defeated the champions of Bulgaria and Hungary, it failed to score in the last match against the Slovenian champions Maribor on August 22, narrowly losing 1-0, and was eliminated from the competition, to the great disappointment of its fans. The team will try its luck again in the Europa League group stage.

Nevertheless, in light of its history of ups and downs, its determination and the way its owner is managing the club, the fans of Hapoel Beersheba can remain calm. The future is bright. The club’s road from the relegation battles in 2013 to being on the verge of qualifying for the world’s most lucrative soccer competition in 2017 is heady sports history.

As long as Barkat is there and the club guards its assets and develops its identity and community together with the city, more glory days are ahead for the red team from the south.

Hapoel Beersheba is diverse. The fans represent well the social fabric of Beersheba as a city, and as a metropolis. Secular and religious, Jews and Arabs, Mizrahim and Ashkenazim, Russians and Ethiopians – all are all part of the crowd.

On the field it’s the same. Against Maribor, four out of the first 11 players were Arabs. Without declaring themselves “enlightened people who support coexistence” or showing off about it, the club simply creates an example of the new Israeli identity.

With patience, hard work and the right investments on the soccer pitch and beyond, Beersheba is becoming a vibrant equal to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

As the vision comes to fruition, we can say that the man interviewed on Arlosoroff Street was right about Beersheba – the club, the fans and the city – emerging from the wilderness and positioning itself as a “new center.”