Standing tall

Thibaut Courtois isn't just on track to become a Chelsea legend; he could wind up becoming the top goalkeeper in the world

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At the age of 23, Thibaut Courtois has won league titles in three different European countries. He has reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup. He has 31 caps for the Belgian national team. He’s played in a UEFA Champions League Final.

All of that may be incredible for a player of his age, but what makes it even more jaw-dropping is one other fact: He’s a goalkeeper.

Raised in the sleepy Belgian town of Bilzen, Courtois is now one of the best goalkeepers on the planet, and his giant 6-foot-7 frame is familiar across the globe. After signing with Chelsea from his first club Racing Club Genk in 2011, Courtois was loaned out to Atletico Madrid for two seasons, where he won the La Liga title and grew from a boy into a man.

In his debut season in the Premier League last year he usurped club legend Petr Cech to become Chelsea’s undisputed No.1 and led the best defense in the league to its first PL title in five years. Reflecting on his first 12 months at Stamford Bridge, the boy from Bilzen, Belgium, said it was easy to settle in.

“It has been good, especially to have other players from Atletico Madrid, the Spanish league and Belgium that you know. It is easier to adapt in the team compared to when you are completely new and you don’t know anybody,” Courtois told NBC SportsWorld. “That went well. We were playing well and winning games, doing well as a team. That helps. Being champions and winning the League Cup in the first year was amazing. When you come to a team in your first season, I said I hoped to win the Premier League and other trophies as well, so if you can achieve that in your first year it is really good. I was happy. This year we will try to do even better.”

That insatiable desire to do better sums up Courtois’ meteoric rise from a teenage goalkeeper shining in the Belgian Pro League to winning the Premier League and being ranked as one of the top stoppers on the planet.

But how did he get there?.

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Growing up with parents who both played professional volleyball, Courtois was always going to play sports. His sister, Valerie, currently plays volleyball for the Belgian national team and Thibaut grew up playing the sport of his parents, as well as basketball. He received plenty of support from his parents, Gitte and Thierry, and knew exactly what it would take to be a professional athlete at the highest level thanks to their guidance. After long, tough sessions with Genk, former coaches tell stories of him going home and playing in the backyard with his friends for hours. They even had a YouTube channel called “The YardBrooz” to share their shenanigans. He never stopped. To this day, he still finds it hard to switch off.

“I grew up playing other sports but volleyball a lot. I think if I was not a football player then I would have played volleyball,” admitted Courtois. “I played basketball, I like to play that. I like to play sports all the time, even when I am on holiday. I try to do some things to keep busy. I am not a person who can just relax for two weeks on the beach and just do nothing. I need to do some kind of sport. Even if it is golf … I need to do something.”

Most of that energy has been funneled into becoming a top goalkeeper, but that wasn’t always the case. For a long time, he doubted whether or not his sweet left foot was being wasted taking goal kicks instead of flying down the left flank as an outside back.

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“Between the age of eight and 10 in Belgium you play on a half pitch, just the width of the pitch, so we rotated goalkeepers every weekend and they saw that I had talent,” Courtois said, laughing. “One tournament in Germany, they asked me if I wanted to be the goalkeeper and play every game in goal. I agreed, and I was the best goalkeeper at the tournament. They saw that I had a bigger future in goal instead of on the outfield. I wasn’t 100 percent sure at the beginning. I doubted them a little bit. But when we started playing on the bigger pitches, I was already in the goal more than on the outfield. After the age of 12, I was only playing in goal, but sometimes if I was on the bench I would come in as an outfield player if they needed someone. In a squad of 15 or 16 there were always two goalkeepers but sometimes a ‘keeper would have an outfield jersey and often they selected me. I could play a bit, and that was always nice.”

So, he was a goalkeeper who thought he should have played out on the pitch. Does that sound familiar? Most goalkeepers believe they can show the strikers how it is done as they often stand frustrated at the other end of the pitch as another chance is squandered. Most goalkeepers think it. Only a few can back it up.

Courtois is one of them. In Chelsea’s preseason tour to the U.S., he stepped up and took the seventh penalty for Chelsea in a friendly against Paris Saint-Germain. Without hesitation, he took a few steps back and a languid swipe of his left leg sent the ball into the top corner for the win. As the crowd celebrated, Courtois looked back to the halfway line where his teammates were huddled with a grin that seemed to say: “See, that’s how you do it.” For the record he also saved two penalties in the shootout to secure the win.

Even going back to his professional debut for RKC Genk as a 16-year-old, Courtois has always been confident. Unruffled by the weight of expectation, Courtois stepped in to start in a crucial Belgian Pro League game at the end of the season as Genk needed to beat rivals Ghent to secure a spot in European competition for the following season. Recalling that match, Courtois believes it was a crucial part of his development and proved he was ready to step up and accelerate his career.

“It was a really important game because the team just fired a trainer, we were fourth and wanted to get into Europe and it was an important game against a team who were higher in the league,” said Courtois. “It was a good game, I made some important saves and everybody saw that I was ready to do some important things. So, yeah, I think it is one of those crucial games in your career because if you go under with the pressure, they will put you in the reserves longer and will play you again after two or three years, but then I had the chance to play.”

Guy Martens was Courtois’ goalkeeping coach at Genk from ages 12-19. Recalling that crucial moment in Courtois’ development, Martens reveals that Courtois was nearly released as a teenager as “his arms and legs were growing and growing and his mind was not following.”

But Genk stuck by Courtois due to his supreme quality, and Courtois has excelled at every step along the way since his debut on April 17, 2009, at 16 years and 341 days old.

“For us, we know that he has a lot of qualities, but we didn’t know what his reaction would be when the game was played in front of 25,000 people,” Martens said. “That was for us a big question, but after the game I saw a guy who was playing with so much confidence and without stress that I said, ‘OK, he has everything. He has the technique, he has the tactics, a good mentality and no stress.’ I was thinking, ‘OK, maybe we have gold in our hands.’”

Mertens polished that gold until Courtois left for Chelsea in 2011, and the Belgian goalkeeper has since spoken extremely highly of Martens, saying: “He is the best goalkeeping coach ever. I learned everything from Guy.”

How did a young goalkeeper growing up in Belgium learn so much, so soon? Courtois watched and learned from the greats of the previous generation. Edwin van der Sar and Iker Casillas were his favorites, particularly the latter, from whom he drew inspiration after seeing Casillas start and star for Spanish giants Real Madrid at a young age.

“For him to be playing in goal at the age of 18, it was an inspiration that there was a goalkeeper around at such a young age and he was already important at a big team,” said Courtois. “As well, Edwin van der Sar. When he was playing at Manchester United he was a role model because I think I have quite a similar style to him. Obviously, you would try to see with your eyes and try to learn from things he did in the game and analyze how he reacted to certain situations. For me, you look at every goalkeeper and you try to learn what they do.”

The van der Sar comparison is a particularly interesting one, as Courtois’ former coach Martens reveals their plan was to always produce miniature van der Sars. Genk’s impressive youth academy — which has also produced Christian Benteke, Kevin De Bruyne, Steven Defour, Divock Origi and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, among others — churned out a team full of youngsters that won the league in 2011 with a 19-year-old Courtois in goal.

“At Genk, one of the main things about the education was that we watched a lot of video, from their own performances but also other goalkeepers in the world,” Martens said. “We like to make a proactive goalkeeper. You have two kinds of goalkeepers, reactive and proactive. Reactive goalkeepers they only play in the 2-D situations. Proactive goalkeepers play in 2-D and 3-D situations. We always try to make goalkeepers like Edwin van Der Sar. Goalkeepers who play very high, that their positioning is so good and so important for everything. Everything starts with the position. How do you teach that at the youth level? I think with looking a lot at the videos of other goalkeepers. That is so important. One of the goalkeepers we used was Edwin van der Sar. Now we use Neuer and Thibaut as the examples. He has become an example for all of the youths at Genk but probably all of the youths in Belgium and Europe too.”

Around the same time that Courtois’ obsession with soccer was growing, the Belgian national team went on a run to the last 16 of the 2002 World Cup. His current manager for the national team, Marc Wilmots, was one of the stars of that team, and Courtois remembers being inspired by that side. At the time of writing, Belgium sits at No. 2 in the FIFA World Rankings, its highest ever position, as the country with a population of just over 11 million has become one of the finest national teams on the planet.

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Courtois is proud to now be inspiring the next generation of players, just like Wilmots and Co. did for him.

“I was watching the 2002 World Cup when I was in school,” Courtois laughed. “You dream to play with the national team. Today, young kids dream to do the same as we are doing now. I think that is an amazing feeling, to be a role model for young kids to work hard. I think now more kids also want to be goalkeepers, and that is nice because lots of kids, when they are young, just want to play in the outfield, but now already more kids want to be in goal. As a role model, you can be important and kids really look up to you, so that is always nice.”

Back in his homeland, Courtois’ adventures with Atletico Madrid and Chelsea are still watched closely by fans of the club where he was made. Fabio Vanderlinden, a Genk fan who helps to run the supporters group in Leuven, said that the club’s supporters get together to watch Courtois play for Chelsea.

“Even today, a lot of Genk fans can’t believe one of the best goalkeepers in the world came from and played in our team, especially because he’s such a friendly and sympathetic guy,” Vanderlinden said. “He is always in for a photo with a fan or to give an autograph. Sometimes we come together to watch one of his games at Chelsea, just because we’re so proud he was, and still is, a Genkie.“

That pride back in Belgium is replicated by Courtois, as he is confident Les Diables Rouges can improve on their quarterfinal appearances at the 2014 World Cup and win silverware on the international stage.

“When I was around 16, 17, you saw the Belgian national team had a lot of young talent getting to play abroad. You saw that what they were missing was a little bit of experience. There was talent and then that [experience] finally came,” Courtois said. “I think (during) the qualification for the 2014 World Cup, we played really well, and at the World Cup, we did a good job. We have a very good national team, and we should be able to achieve some big things with our team.”

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Winning. It’s always back to winning with Courtois. Unlike many champions, who seem to succeed wherever they play, the nervous tension that often defines success is missing in Courtois. Recently, I was chatting with a former Manchester United goalkeeper about Courtois, having unearthed his laid-back mentality. “That worries me a little; you want a player to have that fire in his belly. You know?”

For most people, sure, that works. But Courtois is driven to succeed in a different way.  He has an easygoing attitude in a positive way and never seems in awe or under pressure. Despite being just 23, he seems like he was born to be on this stage and is enjoying every minute.

“He has always been like that,” Martens said. “I think that is one of the most important things for a goalkeeper. There was no difference for Thibaut if he played in front of 20,000 people or in his backyard. It was the same thing. He loves the game. He loves football. When he can play, he is happy. No matter where it is. In his backyard, at Wembley, at Genk … He likes to play football. This is important. He would never ask, ‘What if something happens?’ or ‘What if this happens?’ No. He just plays. He is very strong, mentally.”

Mental toughness is one thing, but being a goalkeeper in the most physical league in the world comes with its challenges. Reflecting on his first season in the PL, Courtois laughed as he recalled the hurly-burly nature of England’s top-flight.

“In the box you are fighting. It is difficult for a goalkeeper,” revealed Courtois. “You have to be strong, and I think I handled it very well. I am strong on crosses and corners. I think I did that very well, but, of course, you have to be strong for every second. You cannot lose your concentration for one second because things can change quickly in a Premier League game. Even when a team is losing 2-0 or 3-0, they still do everything to come back until the last second, and you can never relax. You always have to pay attention, and they could come back. Then you are in trouble.”

Although aware of the danger, Courtois is rarely in trouble. During his debut season in the PL, he played in 32 of Chelsea’s 38 league games, anchoring the best defense in the league and rarely looking flustered.

However, in the opening game of the 2015-16 PL season, he received his first red card for Chelsea when he clipped Swansea’s Bafetimbi Gomis. Gomis scored on the subsequent penalty kick to force a 2-2 draw. Question marks surrounded Courtois’ fitness before the game, as he went off injured during the warmup and had some extra attention to his knee, but he started the match and looked fine until that incident arose in the 58th minute.

Arguably, it was Courtois’ first major mistake on the big stage. How he recovers from that, and from missing the following game — an important away fixture at Manchester City in the second game of the season — is huge. As Martens explains, he’s been watching Courtois from afar since he left Genk in 2011 and can foresee a down period at some point in Courtois’ career. So far, though, there’s been no elongated slump or any kind of plateau. The only way has been up.

His former coach hailed his “fantastic quality” and the “incredible” achievements in his career at such a young age. But he also revealed he has been preparing Courtois from a young age for a dip in form, if that ever arrives.

“I always said: ‘Thibaut, there is coming one moment that you are going to go a little bit down, and then I will see what sort of strength you will have’ … I am still waiting on that. It is never coming,” Martens laughed. “You saw with another Belgian ‘keeper in the Premier League, [Simon] Mignolet, for a long time he was going a little bit down, and everyone wrote that he was not for Liverpool. … And now, he is again a fantastic goalkeeper. That is so important for a goalkeeper. How do you react when there are moments that are not so good? I am still waiting. I am waiting, waiting, waiting, for Thibaut to have that moment. But it never comes.”

What is almost certainly coming up this season for Courtois is a tighter title race for the Premier League crown. After Chelsea finished eight points clear of Manchester City to clinch the PL trophy in his debut season in England, he knows it will be a lot tougher to retain the crown.

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“Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool, they have bought well,” Courtois said. “Last year, we were champions and they were quite far off us in the league. They don’t want that to happen again, and they want to try and win the title, but of course we want to defend it and do our best. It will be a heavy competition this year.”

Helping Chelsea to overcome that heavy competition is another former Atletico Madrid player joining the ranks: Radamel Falcao. Having played with the Colombian forward in Spain, Courtois is confident Falcao can contribute to Chelsea’s success and recalls Falcao linking up with his new Chelsea teammates Diego Costa to devastating effect in their days up top for Atleti.

“First of all, the manager will put the starting 11 together and see who is playing with who. I know Falcao very well. He is a top player. … He had his injury one year ago, and at Manchester United, he was maybe unlucky and maybe needed some confidence, but I think if he is on top form, he will add a lot to this team and score a lot of important goals for us,” Courtois said. “If he has to play together with Costa, it is not a problem at all. I remember when we beat Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey, the third goal was a dribble from Falcao in midfield and a pass to Costa, who finished it. They know how to play together, and I hope it works and all of the squad will have an amazing season, and in one year, we can look back happy and add some more trophies to our list.”

With few additions to the squad so far this summer, manager Jose Mourinho has kept the title-winning team together and shown his faith. After a championship-winning season, Courtois believes the togetherness and camaraderie in this team is unlike anything he’s ever been a part of.

“It is important if you want to win titles that you have a squad that is really hanging well together well on the pitch and every player is willing to give his life for another one,” Courtois explained. “When one player loses the ball, then he does everything to recover the ball. Sometimes it happens at other teams that their relationships are not so good together and on the pitch that leads to mistakes. I think we have an amazing squad, which has gelled together, and we have a lot of fun during training, after training. We are very good together and we are trying to have another good season again.

“We want to defend our title in England. It will be hard, of course, because other teams want to do well. And in the UEFA Champions League, last year we went out quite early, so we want to reach as far as possible this season. We have a team that in every competition should try to win it. Of course it is impossible to win all of the trophies in one season, but I think we have a team that should be able to reach the final of every competition if we are lucky. Hopefully we can achieve as many trophies as possible.”

Having fun while winning seems to be Courtois’ thing. But, where does he rank among the best goalkeepers in the world? Many regard him right at the top and, given his current age, he could become the best in the world for a very long time.

“A few years ago, I would have said top five but now I say top three. I am sure of that,” Martens said. “You also have Manuel Neuer, he is No. 1. He is 29 at the moment and has a lot of experience. That is always important for a goalkeeper. I am sure that in three or four years Thibaut will be the best goalkeeper in the world. He will be No. 1.”

Martens then paused, as I asked if there were any other memories of when he first met Courtois and their seven-year journey together.

“In the beginning, there were no indications that he would be one of the best goalkeepers in the world. He was just an ordinary boy, like everybody,” Martens said. “He is a lesson to all young goalkeepers. You never know what will happen if you work every single day and believe in yourself. Then, maybe, like Thibaut, you can become one of the best goalkeepers in the world.”

When you’ve achieved more than what most professionals could ever dream of in their entire career before your 24th birthday, you have to set bigger goals and aim to achieve greater things. Courtois is routinely listed alongside David de Gea, Gianliugi Buffon, Manuel Neuer and Cech, and given his status as the youngest in that list, many regard him as the best.

“Obviously, it is nice when people say you are among the best,” Courtois said. “There is individual taste from each person who ranks the goalkeepers. One likes the goalkeeper who comes out to play high, one likes good reflexes, another likes another type of goalkeeper. I just try to do the best for Chelsea and the national team in winning games and help them to win titles. That is the most important for me. If everyone says that I am the best goalkeeper in the world, or the worst, I don’t really care. I just try to do my best, and if I help the team to win games and win the Premier League like last season, then I am happy. That’s the most important thing.”

Always happy, always relaxed, Courtois has already eased his way to the top of the game. Now, his next step is to become one of the greatest goalkeepers the world has ever seen. At the age of 23, he has plenty of time to achieve that.