Chelsea

Thibaut Courtois: The 'ice-rabbit' targeting Champions League glory with Chelsea

05/12/2017
Chelsea
T. Courtois
Atlético Madrid
Premier League
Chelsea v Atlético Madrid
Belgium
UEFA Champions League
Opinion
The brilliant Belgian, who faces former club Atletico Madrid on Tuesday, is one of the world's best goalkeepers but his DNA is rooted in volleyball
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For all intents and purposes, Thibaut Courtois should have become a volleyball player. As a sports-obsessed youngster growing up in Limberg, he had the height, the athleticism and, most importantly, the perfect role models.

Both of his parents, Gitte Lambrechts and Thierry Courtois, played semi-professional volleyball, and his sister Valérie also took up the sport, going on to represent Belgium at international level. 

However, Courtois had a particular aptitude for football and it didn't take long for his talent to be noticed. Indeed, he was picked up by Genk at just seven years of age.

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At that stage of his fledgling career, though, Courtois was a left-back. It was only after a couple of seasons at Genk that he was converted into a goalkeeper.

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The switch couldn't have gone much better. As Genk coach Guy Martens tells Goal, Courtois didn't just have the right physique to become a goalkeeper, he had the right mentality.

“We call these kinds of guys ‘ice rabbits’ in Flemish,” he enthuses. "He is always cool, whether there are 25,000 people in the crowd or 50 people.

"He is always calm with the ball at his feet or in his hands. He is never nervous and reminds me of Edwin van der Sar the most.”

That was no coincidence. In Van Der Sar, Courtois saw a goalkeeper of a similar build - tall and thin - and with equally good feet. 

Of course, even a talented youngster requires a slice of luck when it comes to getting a big break - and Courtois was no different.

Working alongside another talented prospect in Koen Casteels had aided Courtois' development but he was only handed his debut, at the age of 16 in 2009, when Genk's senior squad were rocked by a goalkeeping crisis.

“Thibaut had come to our club as an outfield player,” Courtois' youth-team coach, Gilbert Roex, explains to Goal. “He mostly played in the Under-9s and Under-10s as a defender but, when he trained, he also liked to be a goalkeeper. 

“So, we saw that he had the talent to become a goalkeeper, he had a naturally good position, had very good co-ordination and had no fear about attacking the ball, and also very good timing.

“I think this is one of the things he learned when he was playing volleyball at home with his family and friends.

“However, Thibaut also had this partnership with Koen, who is now at Wolfsburg in Germany, and I really think that was one of the most important parts in Thibaut's development because they started working together at 14 and they made each other better in training.

“Then, when Thibaut was 16, he got a chance to show his talent as the two experienced goalkeepers from the first team couldn't play in a game against Gent. The first-choice goalkeeper, Davino Verhulst, was suspended and the second-choice one, Sem Franssen, suffered an injury just three days before the game!

“So, Thibaut made his debut in the first team and played very well. He then started training with the Under-21s and playing with the Under-19s for a while, but we also let him train once or twice a week with the goalkeepers from the first team.

“At 17, we let him train with the first team on a full-time basis and play his games with the Under-19s and Under-21s. At that moment, he became the senior squad's third goalkeeper, after Laslo Koteles and Casteels. 

“At the beginning of that season, he had just turned 18 but the coach, Franky Vercauteren, chose Thibaut as his No.1. So, Thibaut got the chance to make his real debut in the first team, he showed his extreme talent and stayed in the first team. 

“He showed that year that he was mentally very strong. The first team had a very good season and became champions of Belgium. Thibaut also received the award for being the best goalkeeper in the Belgian league.” 

Chelsea then signed him in 2011 for a fee of less than £8 million. It proved a sensational deal for the Blues - but they weren't the only beneficiaries. With Petr Cech firmly established as Chelsea's first-choice goalkeeper, the club allowed Courtois to move to Atletico Madrid on loan. 

If Courtois' talent was honed at Genk, his potential was fully realised at Atletico . He spent three years in the Spanish capital, growing not only as a player but also as a person. 

Even to this day, Courtois has more honours won with Atleti than he with Chelsea and his father Thierry admits that Madrid proved the making of his boy.

“At Atletico, it was his first experience abroad and he became a ‘man’," he says, proudly. "He learned to live on his own and got a new language. He made new friends in a new culture and it made him an international person.

“For sure, he had a great time in Spain. He won lots of titles; La Liga, Europa League, Copa del Rey, Super Cup. He adopted the Spanish mentality: the way of living, going out late for dinner, living outside in the sun. He led a quieter existence.”

Still, while Courtois' team-mates would describe the shot-stopper as culturally Spanish, he never had any problems settling at Stamford Bridge, where he has won two Premier League titles. 

He has also made the Belgium No.1 jersey his own and is now hoping for further glory with both club and country in 2018.

"Thibaut would like to win the Champions League,” Thierry Courtois tells Goal. “With Atletico, he was very close to winning it before. 

“And, with the Belgian Red Devils, his goal is to maybe one day win a World Cup or European Championship. They twice reached the quarter-final. Next year at the World Cup in Russia, the final or more [is possible] and obviously he would also like to be the best goalkeeper of the tournament. He certainly has all the quality to get the trophy.”

Indeed, it's fair to say he was right to choose football over volleyball!