For One Day, Kiryat Shmona Feels Like the Big Time

This was the first time in 30 years that a team not based in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa has won the title.

The historic achievement by Kiryat Shmona, which captured the soccer championship on Monday, was a scenario beyond the wildest dreams of the team's fans.

"It's hard to describe such happinness," said Jacky Malul, who celebrated winning the title, with other fans until 3 A.M. and got up for work three hours later.

Kiryat Shmona children watching their heroes practice on April 3, 2012.
Gil Eliyahu

This was the first time in 30 years that a team not based in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa has won the title. Kiryat Shmona, with almost no tradition in the top league, overtook the big clubs by a considerable gap.

"Maybe it will take us a few more weeks to grasp the magnitude of the achievement," says former team player Ilan Zvigi, whose cafe in the town's industrial area serves as a meeting place for the team players and fans.

Some 200 children aged 4-10 ran around on the training field adjacent to the team's field on Tuesday, proving that the soccer project founded 10 years ago by Izzy Sheratzky, Ironi Kiryat Shmona's owner, has indeed taken off.

"This is the largest youth movement or club in town," says Yigal Maimon, who brought his 4-year-old son Netanel to soccer practice.

Almost 600 children and teenagers are registered as club members.

"The team's success has brought many children here," says youth coach Miki Maman. "But at the kindergarten and lower grade level the main importance of the activity here is in the framework and values it gives the kids," he adds.

Maman says for him the championship game was "closing of a circle." Eight years ago, he experienced the trauma when the team failed to be promoted to the top division after a draw in the last game against Ra'anana. Zvigi also emerged scarred from that season, and quit; everyone thought Sheratzky's promises of Premier League and Europe were no more than a fantasy.

Now 17-year-olds preparing for practice with the youth team are already thinking of joining the adult team.

"We didn't believe a championship was possible; now we tell ourselves yes, Kiryat Shmona can (do it )," says youth team goalkeeper Tom Cohen of Kibbutz Kfar-Giladi.

Maimon says he has been following the team from its days in the lower-tier divisions "when we got beaten up in Tamra and when most of Kiryat Shmona were fans of Beitar Jerusalem."

"We never even dreamed a team from Kiryat Shmona could win the championship," he says. "I believe the team's triumph makes the young generation proud. It generates local patriotism."

Another father who brought his son to soccer practice on Tuesday has only recently become a soccer fan. "Soccer has become the talk of the town wherever you go," says Shlomi Avrahami. "Even in the kindergarten they couldn't stop talking soccer and even the kindergarten teacher dressed up as a coach on Purim," he says.

But not everyone believes the achievement will have an effect on other walks of life in the Galilee town.

"You can't get a job here even if you have an academic degree - you have to leave the town for that," says Malul. "The victory made us forget all the other troubles for a moment, that's all."

Reuven Levy, who has followed the team for 40 years, is enjoying the moment. After years of treading water in the lower-tier divisions and dreaming of surviving in the Premier League, he says "it's time to quit. Once I dreamed of rising from the third league to Leumit League and then to Premier League. The championship wasn't even something I could dream of."

Avraham Cohen, who has lived in the town for 32 years, says "the championship proves that if you invest in this town, you can achieve things."

Cohen's four children left Kiryat Shmona for careers in the central region. "The state must understand it must encourage businessmen to come here," he says.