Cheering for success

With seven new players and an illustrious coach, Hapoel Beersheba looks set to experience a revival

New Beersheba player Elyaniv Barda521 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
New Beersheba player Elyaniv Barda521
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
In 1952, Hapoel Beersheba was told that it could no longer play in the Israeli league.
The city’s distance from other population centers and the poor transportation infrastructure of the young country led to the Israel Football Association’s decision to forsake Beersheba.
It should therefore be of little surprise that Beersheba has suffered from an inferiority complex ever since.
Beersheba’s teams always seem to play with a chip on their shoulders, as if they continually must prove that they deserve their place in the league.
The club peaked under the guidance of Amatzia Levkovich in the mid-1970s, winning two straight championships in 1975 and 1976 with players of the likes of Shalom Avitan and Meir Barad.
What made Beersheba’s success unique was that virtually all of its players hailed from the region, making the team’s accomplishments a triumph for the entire downtrodden southern periphery of Israel.
However, most of the team’s current fans are still reliving the club’s glorious past from stories passed down the generations, after being given very few reasons to smile in the past two decades.
Recent seasons have been especially difficult for the long-suffering faithful.
Despite having one of the league’s highest budgets, Beersheba only avoided relegation to the National League in the final week of each of the past two campaigns.
A 3-0 victory at Maccabi Netanya three months ago secured Beersheba’s top-flight status for the 2013/2014 season, which will get under way next month. But owner Alona Barkat vowed to do all she can to prevent a third straight season of torture among the Premier League’s basement boys.
Beersheba brought in seven new players, but the real difference from previous summers was in the level and stature of the new recruits.
After six seasons at Genk in Belgium, 32-year-old Elyaniv Barda decided to return to his boyhood club following much persuasion by Barkat.
Barda made 196 appearances in all competitions at Genk, scoring 67 goals – the most ever at the club by a foreign player. He made his career at Beersheba in 2001, going on to play for Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Tel Aviv before moving to Belgium.
Barkat handed Barda a three-year contract that will earn him almost $1 million, but the striker insisted that he could have made more money elsewhere. Meanwhile, the only female owner in the Premier League is hoping that her big signing will prove to be a turning point in the club’s history.
“We’ve wanted Elyaniv for a long time, and finally we have managed to bring him back,” she said when Barda was unveiled as a Beersheba player last month. “Besides being an excellent player, Barda is a leader and I have no doubt that he will contribute in many aspects. I think that Barda’s signing has broken the glass ceiling for Beersheba.
We tried to bring in top-level players before, but had never managed to – and not because of financial reasons. Barda’s arrival will help us bring in other top players, which is a necessity if you want to record success.”
Barkat knew exactly what she was talking about, because a few days later she was already sitting beside former Israel international midfielder Maor Buzaglo, presenting him as a Beersheba player after luring him back home from Belgium where he played for Standard Liege.
Buzaglo and Barda will be joined by other new faces, including Kobi Dajani and Gal Arel, who was signed this week. Coach Elisha Levy, who won two championships at Maccabi Haifa, has been given the challenging job of molding the squad into a winning team despite last season’s letdown.
“I spoke to Barda before I joined, and there’s no doubt that his signing for Beersheba and the fact that Elisha is the coach played a big part in my arrival,” Buzaglo said after being confirmed as a Beersheba player earlier this month.
Unlike many players who refuse to relocate to Beersheba while playing for the team, Buzaglo announced that he would live in the city with his family to get accustomed to its “mentality.”
With an illustrious coach and seven new players the likes of which usually stay away from Beersheba, the local fans now have plenty of reasons for optimism.
Around 1,000 of them attended a recent training match, with the club expecting to sell some 4,000 season tickets, a number unheard of since the club experienced somewhat of a revival in the 1990s.
Beersheba qualified for European competition on three occasions in the 1990s, the most memorable of which ended in a 12-0 aggregate defeat to Spanish powerhouse Barcelona in the UEFA Cup in 1995/1996.
In 1996/1997, Eli Gutman guided the club to its first-ever State Cup triumph, but everything began to unravel after that.
Eli Lahav sold the club to Eli Zino and the uncertainty off the field had a significant effect on the team’s performances on it, with Beersheba being relegated at the end of 1997/1998 after 27 consecutive years in the topflight.
Beersheba returned to the Premier League after three seasons, but it was soon demoted once more and spent much of the first decade of the 21st century in the National League.
However, it was during one of Beersheba’s stints in the second division that a dramatic turning point in the club’s fortunes finally arrived.
The much-maligned Zino relinquished his hold on the club to Barkat, who quickly showed her heart was in the right place and that she had every intention of backing up her words with actions – as she proved once more with her hefty investment this summer.
“The past two years were certainly not easy for me,” she said. “But the tougher the challenges get, the more committed I become.”
As is often the case in sports in general, and at Hapoel Beersheba in particular, there is always the danger that the team could collapse under the weight of expectations.
The experienced Barda knows that as well as anyone else, but he is desperate to repay the Beersheba fans for their loyalty during countless years of heartache.
“I walk around the city and I see the hunger for success,” he said. “Soccer is an important part of this city and the fans are the team’s greatest asset. We have a good squad and I’m certain that we can do some nice things. Hapoel Beersheba is a very big club in Israeli soccer and it is about time the team’s fans have something to cheer about.”