KIRYAT SHMONA, Israel (Reuters) - New Israeli soccer champions Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona have won their first major title, bringing hope, joy and vitality to a place better known as a target for rockets fired by militants from nearby Lebanon.
The club from Israel's most northerly town secured the title with five matches to play after opening an unassailable 16-point lead over their nearest challengers following Monday's 0-0 home draw with Hapoel Tel Aviv.
"No doubt about it, (the championship) brings a heartbeat to this place, it brings a lot of smiling faces to a very difficult place... it brings hope. It's the most important thing in the world for people, sometimes better than the real thing," coach Ran Ben Shimon told Reuters.
Kiryat Shmona is Israel's northern-most urban centre with a population of 23,000 and the smallest town with a Premier League team.
The club, helped by the poor form of traditional title challengers Hapoel and Maccabi Tel Aviv, Maccabi Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem, will be one of the smallest to enter next season's Champions League preliminary rounds.
The win for Kiryat Shmona, situated close to the border with Lebanon, with whom Israel is technically at war, is the first for an Israeli team from the periphery since 1976, when Hapoel Beersheba from the southern Negev desert won the title.
For years Kiryat Shmona, a town that lies in a picturesque, lush valley near tributaries that feed the Jordan river, was the target of lethal Katyusha rockets and deadly infiltrations, mainly by Lebanon-based Palestinian gunmen.
Many of the town's residents briefly fled during Israel's 2006 offensive in Lebanon against Iranian-backed Hezbollah guerrillas who launched thousands of rockets on northern Israel, but the area has largely remained calm since the war.
Argentinean striker David Solari, 26, who joined the club at the end of last year from a team in Cyprus, said he had initial fears of going to a remote place but they were soon allayed.
"Once here, when you see the city and the people, everything becomes less tense. I think Kiryat Shmona is a great place," Solari said.
Security worries and remoteness have led to a high rate of joblessness in Kiryat Shmona, with few major employers willing to venture to a place with no rail link, no scheduled flights to the small local airport and slow road routes to major hubs.
The club was formed and is funded by industrialist Izzy Sheratzky, the chairman of Ituran Location and Control Ltd. (ITRN.TA) who in 2000 merged two small clubs with meagre records.
Over the subsequent years Sheratzky funded a youth programme with the help of Ben Shimon as coach for a significant part of the time. The new outfit entered the top flight in 2007 but were relegated after a season, although they were back again in 2010.
Veteran central defender Salah Hasarma, 38, an Israeli Arab from a village in northern Israel said Sheratzky had confounded his doubters.
"Nobody believed Sheratzky when he said we would eventually win the championship, we thought his words were intended only to motivate us, but all credit to him for following through and showing that the sky is the limit," he said.
The portly Ben Shimon, 41, coach since 2006 with a break in 2008, will not share the spoils of victory beyond this season after failing to agree a contract extension with Sheratzky, who has already named Gil Landau as his replacement.
"I will be done here after five years and go on to my next challenge but I will look back at amazing years and will take lots of memories with me. This place has shown me how a team can improve with the right dynamic and how far you can dream when the pieces fall into place," he said.
Team captain Adrian Rochet, 24, who rose through the youth ranks, said Sheratzky had made his boyhood dream of winning the championship come true.
"I grew up at this club, it is a very special feeling. Of course I dreamt as a young kid of lifting the championship plate but I did not believe that it would be more than just a dream, I'm so happy that it has become a reality," Rochet said.
The midfielder put the team's success down to the blend of modesty and cooperation between the players.
"We are a very balanced side, there are no egos in the dressing room, no bickering over fame, nobody thinks he should be playing in a different position. The big secret of our success is the harmony in the dressing room," the midfielder explained.
(Editing by Brian Homewood)