Softly spoken and courteous, mannerisms somehow at odds with his imposing 6’5 frame, any shyness Thibaut Courtois displays in interview disappears out on the pitch. Combining steely nerves, safe hands and remarkable reflexes, the 21-year-old is currently rated one of the finest custodians around and is thriving at the very top of the European game.
On loan from Chelsea at Atletico Madrid for the past three seasons, the Belgian shotstopper is one of the rocks on which coach Diego Simeone’s historic Rojiblanco success story has been built. And having helped Atleti to the top of La Liga and reach the UEFA Champions League semis for the first time in 40 years, Courtois has also played his part in Belgium’s imminent return to the FIFA World Cup™ stage after a 12-year absence.
With his involvement in Los Colchoneros’ last-four tussle versus Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea confirmed, the keeper spoke to FIFA.com about this “special” tie, Atletico’s league championship challenge and Les Diables Rouges’ chances at Brazil 2014.
FIFA.com: In 2012, when you were on the verge of winning your first trophy with Atletico, you told us that every final is unique and might be your last. Since then you’ve lifted the UEFA Europa League, UEFA Super Cup and the Copa del Rey, while Atleti lead La Liga with four games remaining and are in the Champions League semi-finals. Did you imagine all of this?
Thibaut Courtois: I didn’t expect it, no. I remember playing my first game in the Belgian league just before turning 17 and dreaming of having a good career over there, but I didn’t imagine playing for a big club or winning trophies like these. And now we’re not far away from the most important one of them all, the Champions League. We’ve got the Liga title close too which, because of Barcelona and [Real] Madrid, you never think you’ll get the chance to win. They’ve got better individuals but we’re a very good team and that’s important, because you don’t need to rely on any one player to win the championship. It’s going to be hard to repeat all this though. We’re having a huge season and, now we’ve got this far, we’ve got to try and take advantage. It’ll be tough to take if it ends without us winning anything, but it won’t be for lack of trying.
How did you feel when you were drawn against Chelsea in the Champions League semi-finals, and learning that you’d be able to play despite being on loan from the Blues?
Very relieved. For me, the fact that we’ve drawn Chelsea, like we did in the European Super Cup [in 2012, when Atletico won 4-1], is special, because even though I’m at Atleti, Chelsea are my club too. It’s better not to think about it too much though and play like I always do, because if I start thinking, ‘Oh, I’d better be careful’, then I’ll end up playing poorly. I want to win trophies here and I’ll be an Atleti supporter for these two games, but at all other times I’m a Chelsea fan too. I hope they win the Premier League, just not these two [Champions League] matches. I really hope we can reach the final as we’re so close. They’re the favourites, but [beaten quarter-final opponents] Barça were too.
What’s the key to Atletico’s success? How much of it is down to Diego Simeone?
So much of this success is down to Simeone because he’s the man who’s guided us this far. From the first time he spoke to us when he was appointed, he told us he had a very clear idea about how he wanted things to be done and how he wanted us to play. That clarity has been key. You might be out for five weeks but when you come back you know exactly what you have to do, because the way we set ourselves out doesn’t change. We know what each player’s role is.
You come from a family of volleyball players, so why did you opt for football? And how did you end up in goal?
My parents have played top-division volleyball in Belgium and also beach-volleyball. My sister plays for Belgium and was recently voted Europe’s best ‘libero’, while my brother plays too, though he has to fit it around his studies. When I was little, we had a beach-volleyball court in our garden at home and I used to love throwing myself around after the ball. I was the same when I played football so, when I was asked to choose between playing in defence or in goal, I chose to be a goalkeeper. And it’s gone pretty well (laughs).
You’ve been very highly rated back home in Belgium for years now, no mean feat in a country that produced the likes of Jean Marie Pfaff and Michel Preud’homme. Though you won’t have seen them play live, have you watched footage of their performances or did you base your game on other keepers?
I’ve seen videos of them and I like to watch how they position themselves, but football has changed a lot since then. You can’t compare players from 30 years ago to current ones, because the speed of the game is different and keepers have to be much more complete now. The goalkeepers I used to admire when I was growing up, the ones I watched closely to try and learn from, were [Iker] Casillas and [Edwin] Van der Sar.
Talking of your childhood, what’s your first World Cup memory?
I remember the Final of the ’98 World Cup in France and then watching Belgium at the 2002 World Cup. Our coach Marc Wilmots was part of that side and we were knocked out by Brazil. The game was 0-0 and he scored a goal, but the ref disallowed it and, well, [Brazil ended up winning 2-0]. That was the last big game Belgium played at a World Cup. Let’s see how far we can go this time.
There’s a huge amount of expectation in Belgium ahead of Brazil 2014. Do you worry it could weigh heavily on the squad?
We’re looking at the World Cup as a great experience and we’re going to try and go as far as we possibly can. People in Belgium are talking about winning the competition or equalling [Belgium’s best-ever finish of] fourth place from 1986, but we need to be realistic and keep our feet on the ground. We could win our group and get Germany or Portugal next. Even if we beat them we could get Argentina after that! Then there are the likes of Brazil and Spain. There are so many good teams with a level of experience we just don’t have. We’ve got loads of players at big clubs but a World Cup is a world apart. You have to approach it with humility.
This season has gone near-perfectly thus far. What would be the dream finale?
Well, of course, winning La Liga, the Champions League and the World Cup would be perfect! But realistically speaking, I hope to win at least one trophy and go as far as we possibly can at the World Cup.