Walid Badir may not know it yet, but sometime in the next few days he will likely be called into the office of Hapoel Tel Aviv owner Moni Harel and offered generous terms to ride out his career in Hapoel red.
Harel and coach Eli Guttman believe this is the best way to thank the 35-year-old captain for leading the team on its successful run this season. Hapoel currently lies just two points behind Maccabi Haifa at the top of the Premier League.
Badir, 35, was born in Kafr Qasem - a town of 18,000 located 20 kilometers east of Tel Aviv - where he first laced up with hometown club Hapoel Kafr Qasem. He then transferred to Hapoel Petah Tikva, where he spent seven seasons and was quickly promoted from its youth squad to the club's Premier League roster. Seeking greener pastures abroad, Badir signed for one season with England's Wimbledon (then in the Premier League, since relegated from the top flight and renamed Milton Keynes Dons), where he scored a single goal, against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
In 2000 he returned to Israel to play for Maccabi Haifa. It was the start of the Avram Grant era at the club, when both Badir and Yossi Benayoun sported the Haifa green. During the five seasons with Badir on board Haifa took four championships, falling short only in 2002-03 to Maccabi Tel Aviv. He also played a full decade with the national team (1997-2007), scoring 12 goals in 74 appearances. In the 2005-06 season Badir signed with Haifa's rival, Hapoel Tel Aviv, where it now seems he will ride out the rest of his career.
Today it's clear Badir is the most stable link in Guttman's defensive chain, though that wasn't the case when the season kicked off. Back in training camp, Guttman and assistant coach Yossi Abuksis called the player for a series of talks to make sure he understood they're expecting him to take the reins of leadership without hesitation. Guttman also made clear he wanted Badir to play on defense, rather than his usual position of midfielder, though the player was less than thrilled at the prospect.
Soon it became clear why. Badir struggled in his new role, and no one understood that more than the coach himself. He was soon replaced by Elin Topuzakov and Douglas da Silva, and found the only thing he was guarding was the bench.
"He took it like a man," said sources at Hapoel. "It wasn't easy at the beginning of the season to take the team captain and put him on the bench. Guttman knew he was likely to be heavily criticized for it, but he also knew that at that stage he had no alternative. Badir's response surprised everyone - for the better, of course."
But as Hapoel's fortunes took a turn for the worse mid-season, particularly in a loss to rival and current third-place Beitar Jerusalem, both Guttman and Badir had had enough. The manager called the captain into his office again, telling him in no uncertain terms that he was seeking one thing alone: leadership.
"Guttman won't yell at him like he does at [22-year-old defender] Omri Canada. He gets a great deal of respect from the coaching staff, and he doesn't let himself get into dirty confrontations with anyone. He tries to please the players and staff the same way, so that he doesn't have to deal with any crises," they said.
Badir willingly assumes responsibility - and not only on the soccer pitch. Since his father's death he has moved back to Kafr Qasem, where he has assumed the role of patriarch to a wide extended family. Every morning at sunrise he visits the family-owned gas station to check on business, before the short drive to Tel Aviv to attend to his playing duties.
Badir seems more than anything to be a creature of habit, and some of those habits surprise even teammates who have played alongside him for years. Hapoel recently contracted a prestigious catering company to feed its players, but the captain always orders the same thing - steamed fish with rice and zucchini. The reason, players were astonished to learn, is that Badir is vegetarian.
"That's our strongest weapon against Badir," said a teammate. "We always tell him that if he gets on our nerves, we'll go to Kafr Qasem and tell everyone he's a vegetarian."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now