Pitch perfect?

Ironi Kiryat Shmona is on the verge of becoming the first real small club to win the Premier League championship since 1990.

Ironi Kiryat Shmona players lift the Toto Cup 521 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Ironi Kiryat Shmona players lift the Toto Cup 521
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Any attempt to try to put Ran Ben-Shimon’s success at Ironi Kiryat Shmona into perspective seems destined for failure.
It is not just what his team is on course to achieve this season but also the manner in which it is doing so.
Since 1990, only one Premier League championship title has been claimed by a club outside of the traditional big four. Maccabi Haifa (nine titles), Beitar Jerusalem (five titles), Maccabi Tel Aviv (four titles) and Hapoel Tel Aviv (two titles) have dominated Israeli soccer for the past two decades, with Hapoel Haifa crashing the party in 1998/99, but only because it was one of the league’s biggest spenders in the years leading up to its triumph, courtesy of the backing of the late Robi Shapira.
Kiryat Shmona, on the other hand, only came into existence in 2000 and is now on the verge of becoming the first real small club to win the championship since Bnei Yehuda of Tel Aviv’s Hatikva neighborhood did so in the 1989/90 campaign.
Back then, you had to actually go to the stadium if you wanted to see your team in action, unless you were lucky enough to have your beloved club featured in the one and only match that was broadcast live every week.
Almost half of the league titles in the 20 years preceding Bnei Yehuda’s feat were won by the likes of Maccabi Netanya, Hapoel Beersheba, Hapoel Kfar Saba and Hakoah Ramat Gan, but the communication revolution of the late 20th century has meant that the rich have gotten richer and that the peripheral teams, both geographically and from a soccer standpoint, have been shoved into the shadows.
But Kiryat Shmona has changed all that this season.
Kiryat Shmona’s budget is less than one-fifth of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s, but it is also less than that of Hapoel Beersheba, which is currently in the relegation zone.
One of the surprises of last season, Kiryat Shmona’s biggest concern ahead of the start of the current campaign was to avoid the second-season syndrome.
After finishing their first ever campaign in the top flight in third place in 2007/08, the northerners were disappointingly relegated the following year. They bounced right back and finished last season in fifth place, as well as claiming the Toto Cup, their first ever title.
Kiryat Shmona would have been more than happy to emulate last term’s success in 2011/12, but instead it has vastly exceeded all expectations, currently holding a massive 12-point lead at the top of the standings with 11 matches to play, going unbeaten in its last 24 games and winning 12 of its past 15 matches.
Kiryat Shmona isn’t just on target to claim a historic championship, but it is doing so by completely dominating the rest of the league, including far richer and more respected rivals.
Two men deserve the lion’s share of the credit for Kiryat Shmona’s remarkable season – the aforementioned Ben-Shimon and club owner Izzy Sheratzky.
Sheratzky, the owner of Ituran, was the man who made the decision to take control of the city’s two teams – Hapoel and Maccabi – and set up the club with the target of reaching the top flight one day and becoming a factor in the league.
Kiryat Shmona was promoted to the Premier League for the first time in its history in 2007, with Ben- Shimon guiding it to the National League championship in his first season at the club.
After the team finished third and qualified for the UEFA Cup in a sensational first season, Ben-Shimon left to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv, only to be sacked just eight matches into the 2008/09 campaign. Despite his disappointment at seeing Ben-Shimon leave, Sheratzky brought him back the following April, although he couldn’t help the team avoid relegation to the second division.
But he did guide the team right back to the Premier League in the subsequent season and is now on the way to recording one of the greatest accomplishments in Israeli soccer history.
Ben-Shimon, 41, is the person in charge of Kiryat Shmona’s playing far better than the sum of its parts, and any doubts regarding the strength of his squad were dispelled last Saturday when his men blocked out off-field distractions to claim another impressive win.
It had seemed to be all rosy up north. And why wouldn’t it be, considering the team’s tremendous form? But the idyllic picture was shattered following Ben- Shimon’s refusal to sign the contract extension offered to him last week by Sheratzky. The owner was angered by Ben-Shimon’s request to include a release clause that would allow him to leave for Maccabi Haifa. Although the two eventually met to clear the air, there was much concern that Kiryat Shmona’s inexperienced players would fail to handle the unrest at the club.
However, the northerners thoroughly outplayed Maccabi Petah Tikva in a 2-0 win that reestablished their 12-point gap and silenced any remaining skeptics once and for all.
“My relationship with Izzy has its ups and downs and we had an unpleasant week, but everything is fine now,” Ben-Shimon said after his team’s win in Petah Tikva. “We need to make sure the team remains on track because it is achieving amazing things.”
Striker Barak Badash revealed that the turmoil actually gave Kiryat Shmona extra motivation.
“What happened between Ben-Shimon and Sheratzky only gave us more incentive,” Badash said.
“It will be a travesty if we don’t win the championship.”
It wasn’t that long ago that Kiryat Shmona players were afraid to even utter the word “championship,” fearing they might jinx the team’s stunning campaign.
However, so much has changed in recent months that now the likes of Badash are confident enough to admit that it is Kiryat Shmona’s title to lose, even though there are still almost three months to go until the end of the season.
Amazingly, an unprecedented local treble seems to be within Kiryat Shmona’s grasp, with the Toto Cup already safely locked away in the trophy cabinet and the team to host Maccabi Netanya in the last 16 of the State Cup next month.
No wonder Ben-Shimon is finding it hard to commit his future to the northerners. He, too, understands that things can only go downhill from here. A season like this occurs only once in a lifetime.