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Minnows Kiryat Shmona clinch Israeli title

April 2, 2012 -- Updated 2127 GMT (0527 HKT)
Kiryat Shmona players training at their ground in north Israel. The team clinched Israel's Premier League title on Monday.
Kiryat Shmona players training at their ground in north Israel. The team clinched Israel's Premier League title on Monday.
  • Tiny club from northern Israel claims Israel Premier League title for the first time
  • Draw gives Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona an unassailable 16-point lead in title race
  • Town of 23,000 residents caught up Arab-Israeli conflict over the years
  • Champions League football awaits the town's 5,000-seater stadium next season

(CNN) -- Hapoel Ironi Kiryat Shmona have been crowned champions of Israel's Premier League for the first time in their history after a goalless draw at home to Hapoel Tel Aviv on Monday.

It is a remarkable achievement for the tiny club from a small northern town (Kiryat Shmona) close to the border with Lebanon in a league traditionally dominated by the country's "big four" teams -- Maccabi Haifa, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Tel Aviv and Beitar Jerusalem.

Monday night's result now gives them an unassailable 16-point lead in the league and caps a memorable season for a place which has regularly found itself caught in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

In January this year, the team secured the Toto Cup -- a major domestic tournament -- beating Hapoel Tel Aviv in a penalty shoot-out.

Kiryat Shmona has only been known for war and poverty in recent years. People have been leaving in their droves. But the club has given the population some pride back again
James Montague, Middle East football expert

"It's an incredible achievement," says James Montague, author of "When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone," a book about football and politics in the Middle East.

"It's a tiny place right on the frontier of one of the Middle East's most enduring conflicts, not to mention the very edge of European football," he added.

"Kiryat Shmona has only been known for war and poverty in recent years. People have been leaving in their droves. But the club has given the population some pride back again."

The team, which represent a population of 23,000 and play in a stadium with a capacity of around 5,000, now face the prospect of something altogether grander.

As Premier League champions, Kiryat Shmona have qualified for next season's Champions League's preliminary rounds which get underway in July.

Winning the title is just the start, says Montague.

"Imagine if this tiny club get to play Barcelona? It's no longer an impossible dream."

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