Thibaut Courtois has planted many ghosts over the last four years at Real Madrid, but the biggest will fall on Saturday night if he collects his first Champions League winner’s medal.
In that first season at the club he seemed a bit haunted by his recent past. He performed well at Chelsea and Atletico Madrid, but none of the supporters seemed to have any lasting respect or affection for him.
They booed him at Stamford Bridge and threw him with toy rats at Atlético’s Metropolitano stadium. Worst of all, his old fans didn’t like him and his new fans didn’t think much of him either.
Thibaut Courtois can silence his most vocal critics if he finally wins the Champions League
All of that is behind him now. The worst critics of him at his former clubs would probably grudgingly admit that he has been the best goalkeeper in the Champions League this season.
And Real Madrid fans idolize him because he has done as much as any of their outfield players to ensure he is in this weekend’s final.
And it’s Saturday’s final that gives him the chance to finish off the ultimate demon: the experience of his only Champions League final to date when he came within seconds of finishing it as the winner only to be beaten by Sergio Ramos, a goal that forced the discount in which he was defeated three more times when Atlético lost 4-1.
At the end of last year, Futbol Emotion asked him in an interview: if you could travel back in time, what would it be?
Serio Ramos headed Courtois in the 2014 Champions League final
Ramos’ goal has haunted Courtois and it’s a moment he would change if he could turn back time
He didn’t need time to think about his answer: ‘I would go back to the final in Lisbon,’ he said. “And I’d stop Ramos’ header now that I know where it’s going.”
Champions League finals are hard to reach and harder to win. “It just wasn’t our day to win it,” he said after the game.
The Atlético players in the locker room felt the same after the match. A pact was made that they would return sooner rather than later, Courtois says: “I knew that wasn’t going to be possible because I was coming back from my loan to Chelsea.”
Atlético did return with Jan Oblak in goal two years later. Courtois hasn’t gotten close since. In 2015 he was eliminated in the quarterfinals by PSG. It was the same story the following year. In 2018 there was another elimination in the quarterfinals, this time against Barcelona.
He was at Madrid the following year, but the quarter-final curse struck twice more with Ajax and then Manchester City eliminating them in successive seasons. Last year he reached the semi-finals but it was his former club Chelsea that reached the final at the expense of Courtois.
Courtois shakes hands with former UEFA president Michel Platini (left) after defeat in the 2014 final
Not being able to get to Ramos’ header in stoppage time has stayed with him all that time, how not with a picture of the moment on the dressing room wall put up there to glorify the Madrid captain in one of his finest moments?
For Ramos it was nice to remember that night in Lisbon but not so much for Courtois.
At first it was never easy for Courtois at Madrid. And Ramos was part of the reason. There was never any animosity, but Ramos was great friends with Keylor Navas, who was still at the club when Courtois arrived.
The Costa Rican was adored by all his teammates but especially supported by captain Ramos who never fully agreed with the need to sign a new goalkeeper.
The mental toughness shown by Courtois to thrive at Madrid, in those circumstances, and after a shaky first season and a half has impressed everyone.
Earlier in that first campaign he had conceded five in his first Clasico and Ramos had even liked an Instagram post by a Madrid fan that included criticism of the player signed by Chelsea for £35m that summer.
Courtois first arrived at Real Madrid and fought alongside fan favorite Keylor Navas (right)
At the start of his second season, Navas had moved to Paris Saint-Germain and Courtois was the undisputed No. 1, but he still didn’t seem certain.
There were ‘Invisible Courteois’ headlines due to statistics suggesting that every shot against Madrid was a goal.
And things came to a head in the Champions League group stage in early October 2019 when Madrid fell 2-0 before half-time to Club Brugge and Courtois was blamed for both goals and booed for some fans.
He did not come out for the second half. There were mixed reports as to why, with some even claiming that she had suffered a panic attack at halftime.
What happened in the Madrid dressing room was never fully clarified. It seems that there was no anxiety attack, but perhaps there was a physical reaction to what had become an intolerable situation for him.
Courtois (left) and Sergio Ramos were at loggerheads at the start of the Belgian’s Real Madrid career, but managed to patch things up before the Spaniard left for PSG last summer.
“Thibaut had a bad stomach and a bad head,” substitute Alphonse Areola said after the match, explaining why he came for the second half.
Courtois could have sunk without a trace after that. But after missing the next league match, a game in which his substitute Areola made a mistake that led to Madrid conceding a penalty, he was soon back in the team and has not stopped improving since then.
“At first they doubted him, but I always thought he was a great signing,” says former Real Madrid goalkeeper Agustín Rodríguez.
He fills the goal and yet he is very agile. He is quick on his feet and with his hands. And perhaps above all he has tremendous concentration levels. I’m sure it’s something he perfected while playing for Atletico Madrid and Chelsea. And now he feels important. He has earned everyone’s respect.
Agustín was a Real Madrid goalkeeper the last time Real Madrid played Liverpool in a European Cup final in 1981 in Paris.
Forty-one years later, it is the Belgian international who can help Madrid do what they could not do then and lift the trophy.
It will be a fantastic end to a superb season and, at 30 years old, Courtois will have reached the peak of his career, silencing all his critics along the way.