“I don’t need someone to tell me I’m the best,” Belgium’s six-foot-tall goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois said recently. “I play with confidence knowing that I am.” Courtois often highlights his excellence because he feels it is as self-evident as the daily sunrise. Yet he arguably beat Real Madrid in this year’s Champions League. He is also the best hope for Belgium’s greatest generation in decline when they open the World Cup against Canada on Wednesday.
“Tibo” began cultivating this excellence on the volleyball court in his family’s backyard in a small town in eastern Belgium. Both his parents (who will be watching in Qatar) were of high caliber volleyball players, and his sister became a Belgian national team player. Courtois could have done it too, but was scouted by his local football club Genk, initially as a left-back. He ended up in goal, and at the age of 16, because everyone else was missing, the club’s sixth goalkeeper 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 adamant. Two years later, alongside teenage 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 where he mostly excelled while rarely showing his love. He made his debut in Belgium in 2011. He found himself one eight young contemporaries who have amassed at least 90 caps, finished third at the last World Cup and possess a level of understanding that is rare even among club sides.
They are all in the Red Devils squad at the Hilton Salwa Beach Resort in Doha: Courtois, De Bruyne, Eden Hazard, Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld, Romelu Lukaku, Axel Witsel and Dries Mertens. This is the gang’s last appearance: Hazard has an old ankle, Lukaku is injured and Vertonghen is 35. Only Courtois and De Bruyne (not always friends) remained at the top. However, a great goalkeeper can achieve more than the conventional wisdom of football suggests.
One way to judge a footballer is to evaluate him on an aspect-by-aspect basis. When you do that with Courtois, you can see that he has it all: the perfect goalkeeping build, the perfect technique (see his outstretched upperhand save against Neymar at the last World Cup), and the perfect, seemingly stress-free temperament.
“I’m fast for someone who’s 2m tall,” he says. Few giants come to earth so quickly, this may be the upbringing of volleyball. His mind is just as quick: at the age of 30, with more than a decade of elite football experience, he anticipates the opponents’ passing pattern and gets there first. A one-on-one striker, Courtois drops out of the goal in a fraction of a second, closing every angle with geometric precision. He often makes saves with his feet – holding weights in his hands, the fruit of training to stop shots. According to him, Madrid coach Carlo Ancelotti had to ask him to deliberately concede goals in training to give his forwards confidence.
Over the years, Courtois has improved his passing, but his shots are better: he often saves and then immediately bypasses several opponents with a premeditated shot.
His zenith so far was the Champions League final against Liverpool in May. Motivated, he says, by Britain’s Four Four Two magazine, which somehow failed to rank him among the top 10 goalkeepers in football, he made nine saves in the final, including several upsets. Madrid scored the winner in practically its only chance.
The Spaniards would not have reached the final without Courtois’ eight saves at Paris Saint-Germain in the Round of 16. He has triumphantly tattooed ‘TC1’ and the Champions League trophy on his arm, as Atlético fans were happy to show off recently. He seems to use conflict for motivation.
He was named the best goalkeeper in the world last month but was overlooked vote for the Ballon d’Or to the best player in the world. “Your team is winning because of your saves and you’re only seventh,” he grumbled. “I think it’s impossible for a goalkeeper to win the Ballon d’Or. I don’t know if you can do more as a goalkeeper than what I did last year.”
Goalkeepers are underrated in football. On average, they earn less than outfield players, German economist Bernd Frick once calculated, and have lower transfer fees. Madrid bought Courtois for €35m in 2018 but then paid €100m for Hazard, who has rarely been fit there and may not be in Qatar. A creaking Belgium need Courtois to save them as he saved Madrid.