Sinai Says: Decades of frustration transformed into optimism for Beersheba soccer fans

How easy it would have been for Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat to throw in the white towel long ago.

Hapoel Beersheba players have been all smiles this season (photo credit: MEIR EVEN HAIM)
Hapoel Beersheba players have been all smiles this season
(photo credit: MEIR EVEN HAIM)

Ultimately, it all comes down to patience.

How easy it would have been for Hapoel Beersheba owner Alona Barkat to throw in the white towel long ago.
The wife of Eli Barkat – who made his initial fortune with brother and current Jerusalem mayor Nir as earlier investors in IT security company Check Point – probably didn’t know what she was getting herself into in July 2007 when she finalized an agreement to purchase the Beersheba soccer club, then languishing in the second-tier National League.
An Ashkelon native and Tel Aviv resident, Barkat had no real previous connection with Beersheba and had few scarce moments of joy in the city during her first six years as owner.
But after making practically every mistake in the book, Barkat’s perseverance is finally paying off this season.
With little to show from the tens of millions of shekels invested in the team in recent years, many others would have long given up.
Even Barkat herself had doubts at one stage.
But she eventually remained true to her word to lead Beersheba back to soccer prominence, learning from her mistakes and sticking with her plan even when the initial results were far from encouraging.
In 1952, Hapoel Beersheba was told that it could no longer play in the Israeli league due to the city’s distance from other centers of population coupled with the country’s poor transport infrastructure. The team has seemingly played with a chip on its shoulder ever since, as if it always has something to prove.
The club peaked under the guidance of Amatzia Levkovich in the mid- 1970’s, winning two straight championships in 1974/75 and 1975/76, while also having one State Cup triumph to its name, from 1997.
There has been precious little success to celebrate since, however, at least until this season.
Most of the team’s current fans have been living off the club’s glorious past from stories passed down the generations after being given very few reasons to smile over the last 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.
Barkat vowed to do all she can to prevent a third-straight year of agony and brought in seven new senior players in the offseason.
However, what truly made the difference from previous summers was the level and stature of the new recruits.
After six seasons at Genk in Belgium, the 32-year-old Elyaniv Barda decided to return to his boyhood club after much persuasion by Barkat.
Barda, who made 196 appearances across all competitions at Genk, scoring 67 goals – the most ever at the club by a foreign player – began his career at Beersheba in 1998, 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 a million dollars, but the striker has been worth every shekel so far.
His five goals and two assists in 18 Premier League matches to date don’t sound all that impressive. But his work ethic has inspired an entire club and his influence both on and off the field has been priceless.
Barda’s addition broke the glass ceiling for Beersheba, which had struggled to attract big names in previous seasons despite lucrative offers.
Just a few days after unveiling Barda, Beersheba announced the signing of former Israel international Maor Buzaglo, luring him back home from Belgium, where he played for Standard Liege.
But just as significant as the prestigious recruits was Barkat’s decision to stick with coach Elisha Levy and maintain the core of last season’s squad.
Barkat went through five coaches in her first five years as boss – including Guy Levy on two separate occasions – but was determined not to make a rash judgment this time despite the team’s difficulties in Elisha Levy’s first season in charge in 2012/13.
She was adamant not to cave in to a vocal, yet small minority of the team’s supporters, who have terrorized the club’s coaches to an extent that they often required a police escort to leave the stadium.
The pressure almost broke Barkat in March 2010, when she announced that she was going to leave the club after some so-called supporters literally drove then-coach Guy Azuri off the road with their vehicle. Azuri resigned shortly afterwards, saying he had no intention of risking his life for the job.
Now, those nightmares all seem like distant memories.
Beersheba extended its unbeaten streak to 12 matches with Monday’s comprehensive 3-1 victory over Maccabi Haifa at Vasermil Stadium, a win that brought the team back to within three points of league-leader and defending-champion Maccabi Tel Aviv.
Beersheba already has an 11-point cushion on third-place Bnei Sakhnin, and while its coach and players have stubbornly refused to talk up the side’s chances of challenging for the league title, their play on the field suggests a successful conclusion to the campaign.
Beersheba has lost just one of 18 matches to date and possesses the never-say-die attitude essential for a title challenger. The Southerners came from behind to claim a victory for the sixth time this season on Monday, a week after scoring in the 90th minute and in injury time to overcome Bnei Yehuda 2-1.
Indeed, Maccabi Tel Aviv remains the firm favorite to claim a second straight championship.
Beersheba would love to topple the yellow-and-blue, but the maturation of the club is clear for all to see in the levelheadedness displayed not only by coach Levy, who has the experience of guiding Maccabi Haifa to two championships, but also by the players and the fans, who are finally appreciating the importance of the process.
At long last, Barkat is receiving the credit she deserves, not only for the millions she has spent, but moreover for never losing faith.
Beersheba could win the league title this season, but that almost seems immaterial considering the progress made by the club. Even if the title drought doesn’t end this season, it surely soon will.
After years of suffering, the future is looking as bright as the desert sun for Hapoel Beersheba.