Currently coached by celebrated former international Marc Wilmots, Belgium’s hard-earned 2-1 win over Serbia on 7 June, combined with Croatia’s shock 1-0 home defeat to Scotland, moved Les Diables Rouges three points clear at the top of Group A of European Zone qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™.
In a squad defined by a blend of youth, talent and team spirit, one of the keys to their success so far has been goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois – the youngest first-choice No1 of any of the European Zone’s group leaders.
FIFA.com takes a closer look at the gifted custodian on the back of a season that has featured two major trophies, an individual award, records aplenty and the dream of appearing at Brazil 2014 that much closer.
Reviving Belgium’s fortunes
Belgium arguably enjoyed their golden age at senior international level between 1982 and 2002, a period when they qualified for six consecutive FIFA World Cups. Their best performance came in a fourth-place finish at Mexico 1986, when the Red Devils’ run to the Final was only ended by a Diego Maradona-inspired Argentina.
In addition to the togetherness that characterised many of those Belgian sides, world-class keepers such as Jean-Marie Pfaff and Michel Preud'homme were also key cornerstones of the country’s competitiveness at the highest level.
Absent from the global showpieces at Germany 2006 and South Africa 2010, Belgium are inching ever closer to Brazil 2014, with 21-year-old Courtois already threatening to emulate the feats of his illustrious predecessors. “He’s earned the No1 shirt,” said Pfaff, chosen as the World’s Best Goalkeeper for 1987 by the IFFHS (International Federation of Football History & Statistics), speaking just a few months ago.
Tibo’s rapid rise to the top has caught more than a few by surprise, while no less impressive are the speed and agility he boasts despite his rangy 1.99m frame. Having first made the breakthrough at Racing Genk, he needed just one full season of Jupiler Pro League action (in 2010/11) to convince Chelsea to secure his signature.
Given the Blues’ No1 jersey remains the domain of Petr Cech, however, Tibo has spent the past two campaigns excelling on loan at Atletico de Madrid – where his performances earned him national-team recognition.
Like a duck to water
Courtois has now made ten senior appearances for his country, of which three were friendlies and seven Brazil 2014 qualifiers, and has yet to taste defeat. On his debut against France in Paris at the age of just 19 years and six months, not only did he break Preud’homme’s record as Belgium’s youngest senior goalkeeper, he also did not concede. Indeed, beaten only five times spanning his ten caps to date, he can point to no fewer than six clean sheets.
Diables Rouges’ supremo Wilmots has certainly been rewarded for putting his trust in the young custodian, with Belgium’s tally of two goals conceded in seven games giving them the fifth-best defensive record in European Zone qualifying and the third-best in terms of average goals shipped per match – their statistic of 0.24 only inferior to Russia and Switzerland’s 0.20.
Courtois was denied a clean sheet on Friday against Serbia, in a 2-1 win, but it was a result that secured at least a play-off place in Group A. “I would like to thank you all the fans for being behind us, they were so many, this is wonderful. For us, this is a great win, very beautiful. We will keep working to be ready for the next match against Scotland to win again”.
Their trips to Scotland in September and closest challengers Croatia in October will decide whether they qualify directly for Brazil 2014.
At Atletico, where he will continue on loan next season, Courtois has won this term’s Zamora award, handed to the La Liga keeper to have conceded fewest goals. Twenty-nine conceded in 37 league games, keeping a club record 20 clean sheets in the process, made him the youngest non-Spanish custodian to claim the prestigious award.
This season Courtois also beat records set by club legend Abel Resino, going lengthier spells both at home and away without conceding than the iconic former Colchonero shotstopper. A UEFA Europa League winner with Atletico in 2011/12, this season Courtois has helped Atleti lift the UEFA Super Cup and played a starring role in their Copa del Rey final triumph against fierce rivals Real Madrid.
His bravery, reflexes and agility were all to the fore as Diego Simeone’s men dug deep to sink Los Blancos in a bad-tempered final. And, despite the tensions that had flared during the game, following the match Courtois walked slowly over to commiserate with Madrid substitute Iker Casillas who, along with Edwin Van der Sar, is one of Tibo’s “biggest heroes and childhood idols”.
In a display of mutual respect and sportsmanship, the Spain captain embraced Courtois and congratulated him on his performance. Endowed with all the ingredients to keep the successes coming, the future certainly looks bright for Thibaut Courtois.