With a population of just over 23,000, the northern Israeli city of Kiryat Shmona doesn’t often get a chance to stand out on the map of Israel. On Thursday, however, the city’s Israeli Premier League soccer club took a big step towards putting its hometown on the map in Europe.
This past spring, Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona, won the league title, marking the first time in nearly three decades that Israel’s champion didn’t come from Jerusalem, Tel Aviv or Haifa.
After a long bid towards qualifying for the UEFA Champions League group stage fell just short this summer, Kiryat Shmona opened play Thursday in the second-tier UEFA Europa League, playing to a 1-1 away draw with Spanish club Athletic Bilboa.
Kiryat Shmona is one of two Israeli clubs in the Europa League group stage, joined by Hapoel Tel Aviv. Hapoel, known as “The Workers,” opened up Europa League play at home on Thursday against the defending champions, Atlético Madrid, dropping a 3-0 decision at Bloomfield Stadium.
Despite the mixed results, one can argue that competing in Europe in and of itself represents a win.