As the ball rolled towards Club Brugge’s Emmanuel Dennis, all alone in Real Madrid’s penalty area, Thibaut Courtois was furiously back-pedalling.
In a desperate attempt to protect his clean sheet, Courtois tumbled to his left-hand side just as Dennis’ mis-control tamely rolled the other way, opening the scoring in the Champions League group stage clash earlier this season.
It was a less than graceful way to concede but Courtois is no stranger to looking clumsy.
The 6’6 Belgian can appear a little out of place among other footballers and even fellow goalkeepers, but that’s because he was born to play another sport: volleyball. Both Courtois’ parent were semi-professional players and his sister Valérie represented the national team.
Courtois ultimately turned his attention to football but the experience of throwing himself around in the sand helped his game on the grass, as he explained to The Telegraph: “I played a lot of beach volleyball with my family and that’s where I started really diving really early. Good reflexes is something that volleyball players have, because they are tall but they have to go down fast.”
After suffering the fate of all left-footed players and turning out at left-back for Racing Genk’s youth team, Courtois was swiftly thrust between the sticks at an under-9s tournament.
A stumbling Dennis dinked the ball over Courtois for his second of the night to emphatically put Club Brugge 2-0 up at half time in the Santiago Bernabéu. Zinedine Zidane was concise in his summary of each, bizarre effort as he said: “Both goals were a bit of a joke.”
The sight of Dennis quite literally tripping over his own feet as he bundled in another goal felt like it belonged on a YouTube compilation of some sort – preferably played to the Benny Hill Show theme music.
In his younger days Courtois himself dabbled in the saturated world of football clips. Together with his childhood friend Jens Brulmans, the teenagers had their own YouTube channel – YardBrooz – documenting the best saves and shots (and balls to the groin) the pair could muster in the back garden.
Not long after he posted his last video, Courtois made his first team debut for Genk in April 2009 after the club’s first-, second- and third-choice keepers suffered injury or suspension. The 16-year-old was characteristically laid back ahead of this seismic event and spent the evening before jumping on his neighbour’s trampoline.
That game ended 2-2 as did Real Madrid’s European clash with Club Brugge, although Courtois never made it to the second half.
When the referee blew up after 45 minutes, Courtois made a beeline for the dressing room and toilet. With the piercing whistles of the Madrid faithful echoing through the stadium, Courtois threw up. He sat out the next match (citing gastroenitis rather than an anxiety attack). But his first game back was a shocking 1-0 loss to minnows Mallorca.
Oddly, that was Courtois’ fifth game without a win against the island side. The previous four came in the three hugely successful years he spent with Atlético Madrid.
After winning the Belgian top flight with Genk as an 18-year-old, Chelsea bought Courtois for £9m but loaned him immediately to Atlético. In his debut season at the Vicente Calderón, Courtois was a virtual ever-present as Atléti won the Europa League.
Chelsea were keen on moving him to an English club that summer but Courtois fought to stay in Spain and was rewarded with a third-place finish and victory in the Copa del Rey.
Courtois made a decisive stop during the final against neighbours Real Madrid and his full-back Filipe Luis came into the mixed zone after the game shouting: “What a save, madre mia, what a save! The best goalkeeper in the world!”
The following season he would reinforce those credentials as Atléti won a historic league title in 2014 and reached the Champions League final – his last game for the club.
Three years after signing for Chelsea, Courtois finally made his debut on a muggy Monday evening. José Mourinho’s decision to replace club legend Petr Cech with the then-22-year-old was considered controversial at the time. Yet, Mourinho was swiftly vindicated as Chelsea stormed to the Premier League title.
The big Belgian adapted rapidly to the English top flight, citing his experience as a teenager for Genk as way of an explanation, telling Sky Sports: “I decided to come out for the ball immediately. I think that was because of my time in Belgium. It’s not the same level there as the Premier League but they play really physical as well. So when I was there I was used to getting the knocks.”
Courtois would later dismiss his injury-hit 2015/16 campaign as a ‘rubbish year’ before Antonio Conte steered Chelsea to a second league title in three seasons.
After lifting the FA Cup in what would prove to be his final Chelsea game, Courtois left the west London side for Real Madrid in acrimonious circumstances as he reportedly failed to turn up for preseason training after Belgium’s World Cup exploits.
In his second season at Real, going into a Champions League clash with Galatasaray – just three days after defeat to Mallorca – Courtois’ career at Los Blancos was threatening to become an outright failure.
Having forced through a move back to Spain where his children lived, Courtois and Real enjoyed a a trophy-less campaign to forget. The Belgian debutant didn’t escape the particularly unforgiving judgement of Madrid’s onlookers, although his unflappable self-assurance remained intact.
He told the Spanish publication Marca: ” I still consider myself one of the best, even though the Spanish press wants to kill me. I feel very strong, I am calm because I train and play well.”
In a turning point of Madrid’s 2019/20 season, Real defeated the Turkish giants in that Champions League meeting as their own giant kept just his third clean sheet of the campaign. Real kicked on from that tie and – with a one or two more hiccups along the way – ultimately claimed the La Liga crown with a game to spare.
Zidane built his title winning side on the solid foundation of a resolute defence, with Courtois between the sticks pivotal to the team’s core. Madrid finished the season with the best defensive record in Europe’s top five leagues.
Courtois came back from the brink against Club Brugge, with his head in the toilet bowl at half time to win the Zamora trophy for La Liga’s best goalkeeper.