A victory of sorts

Hapoel Beersheba is in such dire straits that they celebrated the most basic achievement.

Hapoel Beersheba 311 (photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
Hapoel Beersheba 311
(photo credit: Asaf Kliger)
It was as if Hapoel Beersheba had just won the Premier League championship.
Moments after the final whistle was sounded to Beersheba’s 3-1 victory over Bnei Yehuda last Saturday, the winning players danced their way to the stands at Vasermil Stadium, moving their hands and legs in the air to the beat of the songs chanted by the club’s faithful.
But Beersheba hadn’t won the league title.
It had merely claimed its second win of the 2011/12 season.
The magnitude of the crisis at the club, which was once the pride of the South, reached such proportions that what should be regarded as a straightforward win is followed by a celebration that used to only accompany real achievements.
But can you really blame the Beersheba players and fans for enjoying a moment so rare in recent times that they could barely even remember what it felt like? After all, Beersheba had gone since February without a home win in the league, a drought no fan deserves to endure.
However, the three points last Saturday did little to improve Beersheba’s dire situation.
Beersheba remains one place off the bottom of the standings and would be rock-bottom had last-placed Hapoel Petah Tikva not begun the season with a nine-point deduction after going into liquidation during the summer.
It is hard to imagine now, but there were times when Beersheba was regarded as one of the top clubs in the country. Under the guidance of Amatzia Levkovich, Beersheba won two straight championships in 1974/75 and 1975/76 and players of the likes of Shalom Avitan and Meir Barad were among the biggest stars in Israeli soccer.
The uniqueness of Beersheba’s success was that virtually all of its players hailed from the region, making the team’s accomplishments a triumph for the entire downtrodden periphery of Israel.
However, most of the team’s current fans are still living the club’s glorious past from stories passed down through generations and dreaming of the day that they too will see Beersheba crowned as champion of Israel with their own eyes.
Beersheba experienced somewhat of a revival in the 1990s.
The club never really challenged for the championship, but it qualified for European competition on three different occasions, the most memorable of which ended in a 12-0 aggregate defeat to Spanish powerhouse Barcelona in the UEFA Cup in 1995/96.
The following season, 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 the field, with Beersheba being relegated at the end of 1997/98 after 27 consecutive years in the top-flight.
Beersheba returned to the Premier League after three seasons, but was soon relegated once more and spent much of the first decade of the 21st century in the National League.
But 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 Alona Barkat, a Tel Aviv philanthropist almost completely unknown in soccer circles until that stage.
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. Barkat invested heavily in the club’s youth department and in 2009 the team looked to be on the rise once more after Guy Levy guided it back to the Premier League.
However, it all turned sour again the following season after Levy left.
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 have long held a reputation for intolerance and unrealistic expectations, resulting in 15 different coaches guiding the team since the turn of the century.
Last March, matters completely got out of hand when then-coach Guy Azuri was driven off the road by fans.
Azuri resigned shortly afterwards, saying he had no intention of risking his life for the job.
What made Azuri’s departure especially absurd was that he had led the team to a respectable eighth position in its first Premier League campaign in five years. But Beersheba’s faithful were convinced the team should have done much better and accused Azuri of favouring expensive foreign imports instead of using local home-grown talent.
Nir Klinger was brought in as a replacement and he actually lasted more than a season, but not by much.
Klinger resigned in an unorthodox manner on October 1, announcing his departure in his post-match TV interview after guiding the side to its first win of this season. Beersheba lost its first six matches of the campaign and Klinger would have left regardless of the score in the encounter against fellow-struggler Hapoel Haifa.
Guy Levy returned to the club for a second tenure but results were far from immediate, with Beersheba only finally winning under Levy’s guidance in his eighth match in charge this past Saturday.
“After such a long period in which we worked so hard and were not rewarded with results on the field, it is very emotional to finally claim a victory,” said Levy following the 3-1 win over Bnei Yehuda. “We must display continuity. This group of players wasn’t scared to play offensive soccer and that is far from a given in our current situation.”
Beersheba’s current situation is that it enters Saturday’s match at Hapoel Rishon Lezion, which will complete its first round of games, still three points away from safety.
It is understandable why Beersheba players and fans were so desperate to celebrate last weekend’s win. But the club’s only hope of survival rests upon such victories becoming commonplace, starting on Saturday.