Thibaut Courtois won Real Madrid this Champions League. It’s time he’s shown some respect
Liverpool’s second shot at Los Blancos in the ultimate club final in the space of four years was supposed to be about what Mohamed Salah craved: revenge. It would be payback for the moment in 2018’s final in Kyiv when Ramos hauled him down to prevent a breakaway that threatened to give Jurgen Klopp’s team the lead, a decision that ended in the Egypt striker dislocating his shoulder and being led, tearfully, from the pitch in the 30th minute of what became a 3-1 defeat.
In the end, 2022’s final in Paris was actually all about what Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois wanted: not simply victory, but for his iconic moment in a Champions League final to date — a full-length left-to-right dive, with all 6-foot-7 of him at full extension, that failed to stop Ramos’ brilliant added-time header sneaking into the postage-stamp space between his fingertips and the right-hand post of Atletico Madrid‘s goalmouth in the 2014 final in Lisbon — to be erased from memory. That night, Los Rojiblancos went from 1-0 up with seconds remaining to a 4-1 thrashing in extra-time. Courtois couldn’t live with that image defining him.
Both men wanted to shake Ramos from their Champions League final pain. Salah couldn’t; Courtois could — and did. The Belgium goalkeeper produced a majestic evening in the umpteenth match this season, across all the competitions in which Madrid competed, when a rival left the pitch thinking: “Why didn’t we win that? How does Courtois do those things?!”
After the match on Saturday night, Courtois told Spanish media in the mixed zone: “Desire is what really makes the difference in a big final like this. The key is having repeated to myself, ‘Today is my day. This is what I’ve worked for. Today I’m going to win this trophy. I will not lose another final.’ So to make that happen is a fantastic feeling.”
The strange thing is that, if you asked dedicated Real Madrid fans whether this was Courtois’ best game, either since joining from Chelsea in 2018 or even over the past two seasons, many would stop, ponder and name days when he’s been more crucial to Los Blancos winning. But beauty is in the eye of the beholder and many others will claim that the occasion, pressure, rival and trophy at the end means Saturday’s performance was his zenith.
However, Courtois thinks he’s been at his best-ever level for the last two seasons. Earlier this term he admitted, ruefully, that it seemed his own evaluation didn’t seem to count for much, that Madrid finishing trophyless in 2020-21 had obscured how superbly he’d played every week.
Rueful then, angry later when UK football magazine FourFourTwo — usually considered, intelligent and reliable — published their ranking of goalkeepers around the world and, ludicrously, didn’t place Courtois in the top 10. For anyone who knows anything about football, it was a complete aberration from the word “go.” Nevertheless, a small seed for the magic Courtois produced to deny Liverpool in Paris on Saturday was planted.
Not long after the magazine was published in March, Madrid’s keeper gave an interview to Miguel Serrano TV and, when asked about it, said: “These people only show themselves up. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and I’m not claiming that I’m first, second or third, but if neither I nor [Gianluigi] Donnarumma are in this top 10 then something’s gone wrong. What happens is that, later, you find that it’s people like this often get a vote in football’s individual prizes and it’s then they confirm that they’ve really got no idea at all.”
NFL legend Tom Brady, maybe you’ve heard of him, held a totally different view and launched a cross-Atlantic barb of his own. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, inarguably one of the great sportsmen of all time, in any sport, sent Courtois a signed shirt with the inscription: “Thibaut — the best goalkeeper in the world!”
That’s the context required to understand why Madrid’s man of the match, in his first on-pitch interview after beating Liverpool 1-0, said: “Today, I needed to win a final — for my career, for all the hard work, to put respect on my name because I don’t think I have enough respect, especially in England. I saw a lot of criticism that I was not good enough or whatever.”
Later, he added: “I said at the press conference on Friday that when Madrid play in finals, they win. I then saw a lot of tweets saying I would get humbled. It was the other way round. Liverpool were very strong today. I think I played a great game and that was the difference.
Aaron Ramsdale (Arsenal), Jose Sa (Wolverhampton Wanderers), Unai Simon (Athletic Club), Yassine Bounou (Sevilla), Jan Oblak (Atletico Madrid) all were named ahead of the man who’s won 15 major trophies; played for Atletico, Chelsea and Madrid; and finished third at the 2018 the World Cup. Are you surprised it stung him? That he stored it and used it as motivation?
And then those who curate the list of candidates for the Yashin Trophy, the Ballon d’Or for keepers, didn’t include Courtois either. In the voting for the 2021 award, he came eighth, unbelievably enough, behind such luminaries as Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martinez, Leicester’s Kasper Schmeichel and Oblak — the Atleti keeper notoriously going through the worst form he’s shown since moving to Spain eight years ago.
If you haven’t been watching Madrid this term, then let the statistics guide you. Courtois needed to make 59 saves (more than anyone else) to win the Champions League and pulled off about 100 more than that in order to hand Madrid the LaLiga title. Remember, this is only the second time Los Blancos have managed to become champions of Spain and Europe at the same time since 1958.
Forwards Karim Benzema and Vinicius Junior, with more than 100 goals and assists between them this season, have caught the eye more. Midfielder Luka Modric has a tendency to do very special things on big occasions, too, but Courtois has been Madrid’s close-combat bodyguard across the past two seasons. His middle names are Nicolas Marc but, if there were any justice in the world, they should be Notoriously Magnificent.
When he eventually looks back at his exploits at the Stade de France, I’ll wager you that he rates the first-half save from Sadio Mane, with the scores level at 0-0, as his best technically. Against a raging drive, Courtois’ fingertips did what they couldn’t quite do in Lisbon eight years ago and tipped the ball onto the post. He quickly followed that up by leaping to his feet and pouncing on a loose ball in the six-yard box before Salah could touch it into the gaping net.
Then, I’d guess, he’ll say that the second-half save from Salah was the most vital. There were nine minutes of normal time remaining, he’d already thwarted the Egyptian (twice) and Diogo Jota, but a goal at this stage and Klopp’s “mentality monsters” would not simply gain scoreboard parity, they’d have crucial momentum to go with their relentless attacking.
Salah made good on his threat with a cannon of a shot that erupted off his right boot. How Courtois deflected it wide when the ball hit the top edge of his right arm, rather than getting a solid hand on it, we can only marvel at. Not only did it keep Madrid ahead, and effectively seal their 14th Champions League win, it caused two iconic images that, now, can erase that of Courtois’ despairing and futile full-length dive as Ramos scored past him in 2014 with Atletico smelling the trophy.
Salah, on seeing the ball ricochet violently off to the right and out for a corner kick, sank to his knees in disbelief and despair. David Alaba, already a double Champions League winner with Bayern Munich, showed just what the split-second brilliance meant to him by leaping, like a child with his dad, fully into Courtois’ arms and wrapping his legs around the Belgian’s torso. Disbelief from Salah; utter, rampant relief from Alaba. Magic.
What competed with Courtois’ nerve, physical size, mentality, decision-making and will to win in Paris on Saturday was his agility. For most of his important saves, he was throwing himself left or right to defend efforts destined for the lower corners, a feat that’s vastly difficult for a 30-year-old who is 6-foot-7 — or at least it should be.
Earlier this season, this phenomenal competitor, whose parents were both top-level volleyball players and who was himself tempted to dump football for the sport of his mum and dad, explained: “I played volleyball every summer, beach volleyball with my parents. In terms of reflexes, even at a young age I loved to jump and dive on the floor. I think that a volleyball player who is two metres tall has to drop to the ground very quickly, he has to have a good spring, he has to follow the trajectory of the ball well when the setter passes to him. I’m fast for someone who is two metres tall. Maybe it’s my parents’ genes, but it might also come from volleyball.”
Real Madrid fans can be grateful for those formative years. Grateful, too, for the patient his mum happened to be treating when Courtois was an impressionable kid.
“My mum is a physio, and she was treating someone who would travel to watch Madrid play two or a three times every season. He was a massive fan,” Courtois told UEFA. “I already admired and followed Iker Casillas at that time, but this guy brought me back a Real Madrid flag, one of Casillas’ shirts, too — stuff like that. My mother wasn’t really a football fan but since I was with my mum at work quite a lot, I heard lots of stories about Real Madrid and so I liked Los Blancos more and more thanks to that coincidence.”
That’s how it started way, way back, but this is how it started at the beginning of this Champions League season: Madrid went to San Siro on Matchday One, Simone Inzaghi’s Inter Milan, reigning Italian champions, were fitter, faster and feeding off the home crowd’s rabid desire to teach Carlo Ancelotti’s team — remember, he’s an AC Milan legend — a lesson. Madrid were under pressure. Eden Dzeko threatened to score time and time again, but Courtois masterfully denied all the Nerazzurri players before Rodrygo popped up with a goal to make it 1-0.
“We faced a keeper that it’s really very difficult to score against,” Inzaghi said that night. On Saturday night, Klopp justifiably said: “Courtois made three world-class saves.”
Praise, appreciation and a Champions league trophy lift, at last, for a keeper who isn’t simply the best at his job anywhere in the world right now — and has been on and off throughout his entire career — but is, arguably, among the best three or four footballers, in any position, anywhere in football. Let the Ballon d’Or awards this year match the reality of the situation for Belgium‘s big, bold, brash and utterly brilliant Spanish and European champion. Benzema is the clear winner, but Courtois should be second. Time to put things right there as well.