Club Atlético de Madrid's arrival in Israel for the start of their UEFA Europa League title defence may be the big story, but Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC captain Walid Badier will look to make his own little piece of competition history in the Group B opener.
The 38-year-old midfielder-turned-defender is in line for his 64th appearance in the UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League, nudging level with Mladen Petrić in fifth place in the tournament's all-time leaderboard. Should the skipper play all six of his side's group stage games – in a section also containing A. Académica de Coimbra and FC Viktoria Plzeň – he will move alongside former FC Internazionale Milano goalkeeper Walter Zenga in third position in the all-time appearances list.
"64?" said Badier at the pre-match press conference. "Wow - that number sounds good. I'm honoured and flattered to be in the same list as these great players."
Opponents Atlético should know that their hosts will hardly be standing on ceremony, either for the veteran or for the trophy holders. Badier himself signalled the ambition within the Hapoel Tel-Aviv ranks ahead of Thursday's matchday one encounter, saying: "We're not afraid to say, even at this early stage, that we are thinking about the next round. We have a good team. Every player here wants to progress and we will show this on the pitch."
Badier first featured in the UEFA Cup with Hapoel Petach-Tikva FC in 1997, and has since represented Maccabi Haifa FC and Hapoel in the competition. Born in 1974, this man of many footballing parts began playing in the hill-top city of Kafr Qasim and, by the age of 14, was on Hapoel Petach-Tikva's books as a striker. However, not long before turning professional, he dropped back to the centre of midfield, a role in which he would appear 74 times for Israel and play abroad with Wimbledon FC in 1999/2000 – notably scoring his only Premier League goal away to Manchester United FC.
Oddly, he had already considered quitting by that stage, severely shaken by the death of his father in 1997. "I was close to giving up football for good, but then I decided to play both for dad and for myself," he said. Tellingly, the first thing he did after finding the net at Old Trafford was to look up to the stands forlornly, hoping to see his father celebrating.
That lone season in England ended in relegation, yet a return home with Maccabi Haifa proved the start of something much better. He won four national titles with the Greens, as well as adding another 13 to his tally of UEFA Cup appearances. Haifa coach Avram Grant was suitably impressed. "Walid will always be the embodiment of professionalism," he said. "It's no surprise he has had such a long career. He lives like an athlete should, and I hope every young player in Israel learns from him."
In 2005, aged 31, Badier was transferred to Hapoel Tel-Aviv and a new post in central defence. "The team needed someone to lead from the back," said Eli Gutman, Badier's first coach at Hapoel. "Badier is the kind of player who sees football as a profession, and that shows in everything he does – on and off the pitch."
Even so, this is expected to be Badier's last European campaign, with most anticipating he will hang up his boots in 2013, but following another summer when predictions of his imminent retirement were premature, who is to say when he will bow out? "I don't even want to think about life after football," he said. "As long as my body lets me, and coaches believe in me, I want to play."
Most UEFA Europa League/UEFA Cup appearances
96 Giuseppe Bergomi (FC Internazionale Milano)
90 Frank Rost (SV Werder Bremen, FC Schalke 04, Hamburger SV)
69 Walter Zenga (FC Internazionale Milano)
66 Enzo Scifo (RSC Anderlecht, FC Internazionale Milano, FC Girondins de Bordeaux, AJ Auxerre, Torino Calcio, AS Monaco FC)
64 Mladen Petrić (Grasshopper-Club, FC Basel 1893, Borussia Dortmund, Hamburger SV)
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