“I don’t need anyone to tell me I am the best,” Belgium’s 2-metre-tall keeper Thibaut Courtois said recently. “I play with confidence, knowing that I am.” Courtois often points out his excellence, because he feels it gets taken for granted, like the daily sunrise. Yet he arguably won Real Madrid this year’s Champions League. He is also the best hope for Belgium’s waning greatest generation as they kick off their World Cup against Canada on Wednesday.
“Tibo” started cultivating that excellence on the volleyball court in his family’s back garden in small-town eastern Belgium. Both his parents (who will be watching in Qatar) were high-level volleyball players, and his sister became a Belgian international. Courtois could have too, but was scouted by his local football club Genk, initially as a left-back. He ended up in goal, and aged 16, because everyone else was missing, the club’s sixth-choice keeper made his first team debut. “His face reminds me of my son — he’s 11 months old,” joked a Brazilian teammate. But the child was unflappable. Two years later, playing with teenaged midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, Courtois helped Genk win the Belgian league in 2011.
He was immediately signed by Chelsea and loaned to Atlético Madrid, two clubs for which he mostly excelled while seldom expressing affection. In 2011, he debuted for Belgium. He found himself one of eight young peers who went on to amass at least 90 caps each, finish third at the last World Cup and build up a level of understanding rarely found even in club sides.
They are all in the Red Devils’ squad at Doha’s Hilton Salwa Beach Resort: Courtois, De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Romelu Lukaku, Axel Witsel and Dries Mertens. This is the band’s last gig: Hazard has an old man’s ankle, Lukaku is out injured, and Vertonghen is 35. Only Courtois and De Bruyne (not always friends) remain at their peak. Yet a great goalkeeper can make more difference than football’s conventional wisdom assumes.
One way of judging a footballer is to assess him aspect by aspect. When you do that with Courtois, you see he has everything: the perfect goalkeeper’s build, the perfect technique (see his outstretched top-handed save against Neymar at the last World Cup), and the perfect, apparently stress-free temperament.
“I’m fast for someone who is 2 metres tall,” he says. Few giants get to ground as rapidly, which may be his volleyball upbringing. His mind is just as quick: at 30, with already over a decade’s experience of top-class football, he foresees opponents’ passing patterns and gets there first. One on one against a forward, Courtois is out of goal in a split-second, closing every angle with geometrical precision. He often saves with his feet — the fruit of training on stopping shots while holding weights in his hands. He says Madrid’s coach Carlo Ancelotti has had to ask him to concede goals deliberately in training games to give his strikers confidence.
Over the years Courtois has improved his passing, but his throws are better: often he’ll save and then instantly bypass several opponents with a premeditated hurl.
His zenith to date was that Champions League final against Liverpool in May. Motivated, he says, by Britain’s Four Four Two magazine, which somehow had not named him among football’s top 10 keepers, he made nine saves in the final, including several stunners. Madrid scored the winner from practically their only chance.
The Spaniards wouldn’t even have reached the final without Courtois’s eight saves away at Paris Saint-Germain in the round of 16. In triumph, he had “TC1” and the Champions League trophy tattooed on his arm, as he recently enjoyed displaying to jeering Atlético fans. He seems to use conflict for motivation.
Last month he was named the world’s best keeper, yet was overlooked in voting for the Ballon d’Or for the world’s best player. “Your team wins thanks to your saves and you only finish seventh,” he grumbled. “I think it’s impossible for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or. I don’t know if as a goalkeeper you can do more than what I did last year.”
Football undervalues keepers. They earn less on average than outfield players, German economist Bernd Frick once calculated, and command lower transfer fees. Madrid bought Courtois for €35mn in 2018, but then paid €100mn for Hazard, who has seldom been fit there, and might not be in Qatar either. Creaky Belgium need Courtois to save them like he saved Madrid.