"It's true we did not know much of Hapoel Be'er Sheva before the draw, we heard only about teams from Tel Aviv, but after the last few weeks - there is no detail that we do not know about this excellent team.” The speaker is Beşiktaş manager, Şenol Güneş. The venue is the press conference at the Turner Stadium in Be’er Sheva, Israel, yesterday, ahead of the knock out clash between the two clubs on Europa League’s last 32. In recent weeks, the Turkish club's scouts milled games at Turner and well-studied group of Barak Bakhar.
Güneş is maybe aware of the dangerous players of his rivals, but if he was interested in history, he probably had heard of Be’er Sheva, the city and the team, long before he heard about the teams from Tel Aviv. Then, he would have understood that his team’s visit this southern city has also a fascinating historical significance.
At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Turkish Empire, then advanced stages of collapse, decided to expand the imperial presence in its peripheral districts of the Ottoman Palestine-Eretz Israel. Be’er Sheva, has been an attractive destination for investment. The aspirations to neutralize the control of the Bedouine tribes in the area, together with the need to strengthen the southern border with Egypt (that was controlled by the United Kingdom at the time), were the security reasons for the city’s establishment. The fact that Be'er Sheva was sitting on a strategic crossroads economically, stimulated the Ottomans to establish a regional trading center connecting the Gaza Strip, Gulf of Aqaba and Hebron, with the new city in the middle of it. Already in 1877 the pedestrian town was recognized as a city, and in 1900 the town of Be’er Sheva was officially declared by the Governor Kemal Pasha as the new county capital of Be’er Sheva district. Thus, Be’er Sheva became officially the first (and only) city the Ottomans planned, and us, in Palestine-Eretz Israel.
At the end of the 19th century, the Ottoman Turks saw Be’er Sheva as a city with a high strategic importance. Much more than Tel Aviv, that’s for sure.
In October 1915, as part of the railway project Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II, a railway station was inaugurated in the city of Be’er Sheva.
The station had an important goal - to be a central point in the connection between Ismailia, Egypt to Damascus, Syria. In addition, due to the strategic location, connecting the port of Gaza emerging commercial center in Be'er Sheva, then to Hebron and then to Amman, in order to connect it indirectly to the Hejazi railroad tracks - leading from Istanbul to Mecca.
In the First World War, the station has become a key logistical point of the Ottomans and the Germans, which moved supplies, weapons and troops between the Egyptian front and the Syrian rear, into the depths of the Empire. In the frenzied regional reality of the time, you could say cautiously that Ottoman Be’er Sheva had a significant role, and the Turks also intended it to be a main artery in the efforts to revive the empire.
Now, back to football.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva dazzled Europa League group stage after knocking out Premier League team Southampton. The club is on a positive run in the past years, slowly progressing and becoming a major power in Israeli football.
The club is owned by Alona Barkat, the first woman in Israel to own and run a football club, and last season won its first championship title after 40 years. The club is playing in the brand new Turner Stadium, a 16,000 seat lucrative venue, that with the “Ultra South” group that puts up tremendous displays, the place offers one of the best atmospheres in the Europa League this season.
For years Hapoel Be’er Sheva was counted as an underdog. The city itself was a deemed periphery in the middle of the desert, who suffered from minimum budgets and discrimination from the Israeli authorities who preferred to invest in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Four years ago the club almost relegated to the second division, but in a durable process the team has made a brilliant journey, won the championship and went far in Europe.
Among the notable players you can find the Nigerians Anthony Nwakame and John Ogu, Israeli-Palestinian star Maharan Radhi, Maor Melikson, Maor Buzaglo, and the captain Elyaniv Barda.
Turkish champions Beşiktaş is one of the three largest clubs in the capital. While Galatasaray was always considered the old elites club of Istanbul, Beşiktaş, similarly to Fenerbahçe, is a working class club.
While the narrative of Fenerbahçe is national and patriotic, the social political nature of Beşiktaş tends more to the left. The senior ultras group's club called "Çarşı”, whose members boast quite a few anarchist symbols. "Nowadays, those clubs are huge and have millions of fans, so the political and social identities blur a bit, but at the level of management and club members you can feel those characteristics greatly. These certainly aspects of personality and identity features of Beşiktaş," says Emre Sarigul, a Turkish football journalist and the Editor-in-Chief of Turkish-Football.Com site. "Respect and sportsmanship are the pillar of the philosophy of Beşiktaş, and in turn, also social and communal responsibility of the club towards his members, his supporters and the residents of the Beşiktaş district in the city," he adds. The club operates in the familiar "socios" system like many clubs in the world, and its leaders get elected in democratic elections being held between the members of the club.
The club coordinates activities and competing in about 14 different sports including chess, table tennis, rowing and e-games. Stadium Group, Vodafone Arena, has 41,903 seats and is considered one of the world's avant-garde venues.
Beşiktaş has an impressive squad. Among the most prominent names at the clubyou can find Portuguese European champion Ricardo Quaresma, Brazilian Anderson Talisca, local boy Cenk Tosun and Dutch trouble maker Ryan Babel. Adriano, Demba Ba and African champion, Cameroon’s Vincent Abubakar, will not play due to injuries and suspensions (respectively).
Despite the fact that Beşiktaş is a luxury club that has been around for 114 years, and that at his disposal there’s a budget 10 times higher than Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s (125$ million vs 12.5$ million, respectively), towards the meeting between them this evening, there are minor similarities between the two teams. Both champions, both coming from the first place in their leagues, and both come in a problematic momentum. The Turks are with two defeats in a row in all competitions, and the Israelis are unstable and presenting negative football.
Beşiktaş’ nickname, the "Black Eagles" (Kara Kartallar), there’s a legend. The story says that in 1941, when the team was in the title race, during the second half of the match against Sulaimaniyah, at every attack, there was a clear call in the stadium: "Come on Black Eagles! Attack Black Eagles!". This call has become a hallmark of that season, which ended with the championship title. Over the years, this call has become the club's official nickname.
In a similar but different way, Be’er Sheva devoted fans can attest that last season, when the team grabbed the championship, also in Turner Stadium there was a repeated call, but at different moments of the game – Ama Ya’amik. This call isn’t a new thing, but during the 2015/16 season became familiar with the club, and developed as broad phenomenon of "protecting" the team from black magic, superstitions and the “evil eye”. It became a symbol and a folklore of Be'er Sheva city, highly identified with the football club.
It is not the first time of Beşiktaş in Israel. In the summer of 1999, they played Hapoel Haifa for the Champions League qualifiers and were eliminated after two draws thanks to away goals. They played Maccabi Tel Aviv and won twice, in the Europa League in 2011. In fact, Beşiktaş has not lost to an Israeli club. Never. Not Israel, not in Istanbul.
Now let’s go back to history class.
Unsurprisingly the grandiose plans of Sultan Abdul Hamid II did not materialize.
With the evolvement of World War I, the Ottomans began to lose territories one by one, and the Turkish cavalry were helpless against West European guns. One of the most important battles in terms of the future of the region was decided in Be’er Sheva.
On the morning of October 31, 1917, General Allenby led an Egyptian expeditionary force-armed with British weapons to a surprise attack on the city of Be'er Sheva, and defeated the Ottoman army and its German partners, as part of the campaign on the Sinai Peninsula and the Land of Palestine-Eretz Israel.
The victory in Be'er Sheva paved the way for a general defeat of the Ottomans in the Levant, the transfer of control of the country to the British, and three days after the Balfour Declaration that changed the region forever.
Hapoel Be’er Sheva doesn’t have major chances against Beşiktaş. The Turks are a better, richer and has much more quality in their squad. Moreover, Be’er Sheva will probably lose. But if Hapoel Be’er Sheva’s magic in the competition will resume almost 100 years since the last defeat of a Turkish team in the city, than the most Middle Eastern clash in the history of the Europa League, will be remembered as an unlikely Cinderella story for another century.