Be'er Sheva a big Champions League hurdle for Brendan Rodgers' Celtic
As Hapoel Be'er Sheva prepare to take on Celtic in the Champions League playoffs, here are five things you need to know about the surprising Israeli champions.
1. Forty years of waiting
The club from the desert of Negev had to wait 40 years before winning the championship title in May.
Their previous triumph was in 1976 and, since then, the team have been through some very hard times. Be'er Sheva may only lie 100 kilometers south of Tel Aviv, but that is a lot by Israeli standards, and the city is considered by many as peripheral and unattractive. The underdog mentality is natural there in all aspects of life, and football is no exception.
Winning the Cup in 1997 under Eli Guttman was an emotional event, but Be'er Sheva were much better known for being humiliated in Europe. They were battered 12-0 on aggregate in the UEFA Cup by Ivan de la Pena's Barcelona in 1994. In 1997, an incredible 10-0 thrashing at the hands of Roda took place in the Netherlands in the Cup Winners' Cup.
That disastrous season ended up in relegation, leaving the 18-year-old academy graduate Yossi Benayoun -- who later became one of the country's best ever players -- in tears. The club had difficulties recovering from the blow and struggled for years. Unsurprisingly, a lot of fans lost hope, but now their fortunes have changed.
2. The first female owner in Israel
Alona Barkat took over from previous owner Eli Zino in the summer of 2007, with the team in the second division.
That was a truly historic moment, because Barkat, whose husband made a fortune in successful business ventures in Silicon Valley, became the first ever woman to own a football club in Israel.
She had no experience in running such projects and not everything went smoothly. Barkat made a lot of mistakes in the first years, and was close to selling the club in 2010 when coach Guy Azouri was abused by angry fans. However, she changed her mind, and the long term planning gradually started to bear fruit.
3. The returning star that changed everything
Benayoun never returned to the club of his youth, but Elyaniv Barda did. Born in Be'er Sheva, the striker spent six successful years at Genk in Belgium, and chose the team he has always loved to finish his career. That was the turning point.
"Barda's arrival was massively important because it was a clear indication that the club is able to attract big stars," Sharon Nissim, Israeli football commentator and a fervent Be'er Sheva fan, told ESPN FC. "Until then, top players were reluctant to sign for Be'er Sheva, but now many of them actually prefer to go to Negev, rather than clubs from Tel Aviv and Haifa."
One of the major players lured to the desert was former Chelsea striker Ben Sahar who joined in 2015.
With Barda on board, Be'er Sheva changed their objectives and became a rising force, finishing second in 2014 and third in 2015, before winning an historic title in 2016.
4. They are unbeaten at their home stadium
Another change of huge importance was the construction of the new state-of-art Turner Stadium. It was opened in September 2015, and the team are unbeaten at home ever since, in all competitions, supported by passionate and warm fans.
"This is the best home ground in Israel, and the atmosphere is extraordinary," Nissim said. "The team used to play in front of empty stands at the old Vasermil Stadium, but now there are 12,000 season ticket holders, and the club could easily have sold many more."
5. Bakhar's meteoric rise
Elisha Levy, now in charge of the Israel national team, was fairly successful at Be'er Sheva, but Barkat decided to replace him and gambled on the 36-year-old Barak Bakhar in the summer of 2015.
Bakhar assisted Ran Ben Shimon when Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona, a small club from the tiny town on the Lebanese border, unexpectedly won the title in 2012, and later coached them himself. He then moved from the northernmost Israeli team to Be'er Sheva, the southernmost, and became a local hero in his first season.
Bakhar's remarkable tactical nous helped Be'er Sheva to outlast rich favourites Maccabi Tel Aviv, managed by sporting director Jordi Cruyff. Most of the neutral fans, who dislike Maccabi's financial power, supported the underdogs, and their success was very popular throughout the country.
The support is still there as Bakhar and his squad are trying to qualify for the Champions League group stage. Beating Olympiakos in the previous round was a big sensation, but certainly no fluke. Hapoel thoroughly outplayed the Greek champions, deserving to keep a clean sheet for 180 minutes and score the late winner in the return leg.
Taking that into account, Celtic must understand that their opponents are stronger than Astana, who posed significant problems for the Scottish champions in the previous round.
Be'er Sheva means "the Well of Seven" in Hebrew, and Brendan Rodgers must be careful not to underestimate its depth.
Michael Yokhin is ESPN FC's European football writer. Follow him on Twitter: @Yokhin