BRIAN SCIARETTA - Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Last season Haopel Kiryat Shmona was one of the surprise stories of European soccer when they won their ever Israeli Premier League title in stunning fashion.
Not even the most ardent followers of Israeli soccer figured Kiryat Shmona would be in contention but the tiny club from the war-torn town on the Lebanon boarder ran away with the title and clinched with eight games remaining in the season.
At the heart of their team was American Bryan Gerzicich whose stellar play last year earned him the reputation as perhaps the best defensive midfielder in the Premier League. He is widely considered to be a major reason why the club allowed just 26 goals in 37 games in 2011/12.
Now with their championship behind them, Gerzicich and Kiryat Shmona face their biggest series of games in club history when they face off against Slovakian champions Zilina in the 2nd qualifying round of the UEFA Champions League.
"It is very important personally due to the fact that you do not play in these type of competitions every day," Gerzicich told YA. "For that reason, I am preparing in the best way possible. It will be very difficult, but last year nobody thought that we would be able to achieve what we did and today we are here to partake in this important competition."
"We are going to play the game with great respect and responsibility, but with the knowledge that we have a great team," he added. "We will take this opportunity and not let it go by."
Gerzicich, 28, also made headlines in Israel following the season because it was unclear if he would return to Kiryat Shmona despite winning the title with the club. Gerzicich had interest from other clubs in Israel as well as from clubs elsewhere in Europe and in Argentina where he began his career.
In the end, Gerzicich elected to return to Kiryat Shmona for one more season in large part because he will have the opportunity to defend his league title and play in the Champions League qualifying games.
The decision was not easy for the Los Angeles-born Gerzicich and he knows that following the season, he will be forced to decide yet again.
"If it was a hard decision because the idea was to try and sign in another more competitive league," Gerzicich admitted. "But I had to keep waiting and was not 100 percent sure so I decided to play one more year here, try to do the best and hope we can do well in the qualifiers and next year we'll see what happens."
Things are very different this season at Kiryat Shmona compared with last year. While they were running away with the league in the final months of the season, headlines around the club were not centered around winning the title but rather the bitter dispute between Kiryat Shmona's owner Izzy Sheratzky and head coach Ran Ben Shimon.
Even with winning the title, the popular Ran Ben Shimon parted ways with the club and Sheratzky replaced him with Gili Landau. Kiryat Shmona now begins their UEFA Champions League campaign with more questions than answers as they adjust to their new coach.
Despite the difficult circumstances around the club, Gerzicich insists that winning the title was a career highlight and something that he will never forget as a player.
"It was a beautiful thing, since becoming champions is something very special because very few soccer players can reach that level," Gerzicich concluded. "It's even harder with such a small team. I was fortunate to have that opportunity. I think it was a great moment in my career and will remain etched in my memory and I hope to live through more beautiful moments like these."
"That is what I dream about and why I work day in and day out. It will be very difficult to repeat what we did but we are looking forward, and we will go game by game."
Gerzicich and Kiryat Shmona will begin the UEFA Champions league campaign in the second qualifying round on Tuesday, July 17 when they travel to face Slovakian Champions Zilina.