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Winning last season's Belgian title was just the start of a glorious adventure for KRC Genk as they sealed a return to the UEFA Champions League group stage after a nine-year absence. Chelsea FC and Bayer 04 Leverkusen await in Group E, but first up they play host to Valencia CF on Tuesday.
Genk have won three championships and three Belgian Cups since being founded in 1988 with the merger of KFC Winterslag and K. Waterschei SC Thor Genk, but Europe's premier club competition is new ground for much of the current squad. As 23-year-old team captain David Hubert put it: "Until now, we have only come up against stars like this on PlayStation.
"It's wonderful for the team, for the club and for me," he added. "It's just a dream come true. We might have a chance of finishing third in this group.
I will not say we are going for qualification for the last 16, but finishing third would be unbelievable."
They would not be competing at this level had it not been for the heroics of László Köteles. The 27-year-old saved twice from the spot as the Belgian champions beat Maccabi Haifa FC 4-1 on penalties after trading 2-1 home wins in their play-off tie, an experience the Hungarian goalkeeper is unlikely to forget.
"It was the first penalty shoot-out of my career," he recalled. "The guys came to me and everybody was saying: 'We believe in you. You can do it.' So I knew then that all I had to concentrate on was catching the ball. The national goalkeeping coach in Hungary taught me that. At first I thought it was ridiculous, stupid, but when I tried it, it really worked."
Having already seen what can be achieved with a little belief, Köteles feels it is no great stretch of the imagination to see his side competing on an even footing with their Group E rivals – all of them UEFA Champions League finalists since 2000. "Chelsea, Valencia and Leverkusen are amazing teams, but they have to come here, and in Genk we are very strong," he said.
While Hubert and Köteles have little more than enthusiasm to go on as they enter the group stage, attacking midfielder Thomas Buffel has seen it all first hand. The 30-year-old represented Feyenoord and Rangers FC at this level, and while he is well placed to tell his team-mates how tough life will be, he was quick to underline the club's achievement.
"For Belgian football I think it's very important," said Buffel. "I think everybody in Belgium is very proud.
I reached the Champions League with Feyenoord and Rangers, which was magnificent too, but Genk are a smaller club and the achievement is much more substantial. For the fans here it is great." Those supporters will hope that even greater achievements lie ahead.
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