Manchester United Next? Israeli Soccer Champions Hapoel Beer Sheva Edge Closer to Europe’s Big Guns
Israeli soccer champions Hapoel Beer Sheva moved one step closer to the prestigious UEFA Champions League this week — holding out the tantalizing prospect for the club’s fans of competition against teams of the caliber of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Manchester United in the coming months.
A 2-1 victory against Slovenian champions Maribor at Beer Sheva’s Turner Stadium on Wednesday night means that Hapoel is one game away from the Champions League group stage. If it succeeds, and depending on which three clubs it faces in the group stage that begins in September, soccer legends like Ronaldo or Lionel Messi could find themselves playing in Beer Sheva.
Israeli clubs began competing in European competitions in 1992, when the Jewish state secured admission to UEFA — almost twenty years after being expelled from the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) because of pressure from Arab and Muslim states. Traditionally, it’s been a tough journey for them — the last time an Israeli team, Hapoel Tel Aviv, reached a European competition quarter-final was in 2002 — and soccer pundits will likely predict a torrid time on the field for Hapoel Beer Sheva.
But the team may yet surprise. When Hapoel Beer Sheva played in another European competition last season, fans across the continent were impressed with their pluck and determination. In one match against Scottish giants Celtic, Hapoel scored an extraordinary 4 goals — but conceded 5 into the bargain.
Hapoel Beer Sheva has been owned by charismatic Israeli businesswoman Alona Barkat since 2007. Under Barkat’s tutelage, the team has not only advanced on the field, but boosted its presence in the local community too, with programs aimed at young people from the Ethiopian and Beduin communities.“There is no place for racism or intolerance in soccer,” Barkat said in an interview last year. “Our team has Jews, Arabs, foreign Christians, and we sign players according to merit, not their ethnic or religious background.”
On Tuesday, the Israeli champions will travel to Slovenia for their return game against Maribor — securing a tied result there will be enough to win the glory of a place with Europe’s finest teams in the world’s most lucrative sporting competition.