“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…
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