Hapoel Kiryat Shmona players stretch during a training session in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona
Hapoel Kiryat Shmona players stretch during a training session in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona. What's gripping the 23,000 or so residents of this impoverished border town is football -- and the prospect that their local side looks set to win the Israeli premier league for the first time in the club's history. © Ahmad Gharabli - AFP/File
Hapoel Kiryat Shmona players stretch during a training session in the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona
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Charly Wegman, AFP
Last updated: March 30, 2012

Border club shakes up Israeli league

For several months, residents of this small town on Israel's northern frontier with Lebanon have been working themselves up into a frenzy.

And for once, it is not over the threat of rocket fire from the Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

What's gripping the 23,000 or so residents of this impoverished border town is football -- and the prospect that their local side, Hapoel Kiryat Shmona, looks set to win the Israeli premier league for the first time in the club's history.

It is a welcome break for Kiryat Shmona which lies barely two kilometres (just over a mile) from the border and which has, for decades, found itself the target of thousands of rockets fired over the border by Shiite militants.

"Our success is like a ray of sunshine for this area which has seen so many rocket attacks and difficult times," says Ran Ben Shimon, who coaches the team of mostly unknown players which now looks set to defy Israel's finest and win the championship.

They have already won the Toto Cup, the Israeli equivalent of England's Carling Cup, filling the club coffers with winnings worth 240,000 euros ($315,000).

They have qualified for the knockout stages of Israel's State Cup, and are also holding a strong lead in the premiership.

With its newly-burnished "AAA" rating, this minnow of Israeli football is hoping to perform well next year when it enters the Europa League and is likely to come up against some of the continent's giants.

"These boys feel there is an opportunity here and they are doing everything to make the most of it," Ben Shimon told AFP.

"They are working hard and in a good atmosphere: that's their strength."

The players come almost exclusively from a local youth club.

"Everyone here is home-grown," Ben Shimon quips, between shouting instructions to the players who are racing around the pitch practising all manner of passes, tackles, stretches and tactical manoeuvres.

The stadium is situated at the end of a valley which is flanked to the north and west by the Lebanese border, while to the east lies the Syrian Golan Heights plateau which was occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War.

With a capacity to seat 5,500 fans, the stadium is covered with advertising slogans for Ituran, an Israeli GPS manufacturer which is listed on Wall Street and owned by Izzy Sheratzky -- who also owns Hapoel Kiryat Shmona.

"Now that's a team!" brags Tomer Hai, a fan who has come to watch the club training with his young son.

"It's a pleasure to see them get involved and fight together. We call them 'the Lions' because they give themselves totally and demonstrate exactly what Israel expects from football," he told AFP.

Over the past decade, Israeli players have made an increasingly visible appearance at the big European clubs, with players such as Eyal Berkovic, Yossi Benayoun, Haim Revivo and Itai Shechter becoming household names.

But the national side has never come to much: in four decades, it has never managed to qualify for a single European or international championship.

But this dark chapter could soon be coming to an end, possibly with the help of Kiryat Shmona which has seen five of its number singled out as potential players for the national team by coach Eli Guttman who recently replaced Luis Fernandez.

As the qualifiers for the 2014 World Cup approach, Guttman has promised "a new era."

And so far, he has not lined up any of the big-budget names from clubs like Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv or Hapoel Tel Aviv, which traditionally dominate the Israeli league.

"Every one of us uses his talent to benefit the team, and the result is there: it is hard to beat us," says Shimon Abuhatzira, who looks set to be recognised as Israel's player of the year.

A tireless striker, Abuhatzira has scored 12 goals since the start of the season and set up another six.

"What really counts is the joy that we give to the fans, and which we ourselves experience," he says.

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