World Soccer

“This is a very special group of players”

Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois on his team’s chances at this summer’s Euros, and that “Golden Generation” tag…

- Interview by Donald Deane

It’s been a mixed season for Real Madrid, although you have been one of the most consistent players. How do you feel 2020-21 has gone so far? We are still fighting for trophies and that is the main thing. There have been some results that we have not been happy with, but we have always had some very good performanc­es. It is a strange season in many ways but there is big belief we can be successful.

I feel confident for both La Liga and the Champions League but as always it will not be easy. We have to show real consistenc­y in La Liga and in Europe, as we know that we have to take things up a level.

And on a personal level, do you feel settled at Real in your third season? The pressure at the club must be huge… There is pressure but that is no surprise. You know that before you join. If you want to play for Real Madrid you have to accept that pressure is part of the job. The expectatio­n is there every season – we know that as players and take on that responsibi­lity.

The season will end with the European Championsh­ip – how excited are you?

To play in an internatio­nal tournament is always exciting but there is so much football to be played before then. It is normal to think about it and to be excited, but at the same time it is important to remain focused on success with Real Madrid.

It’s just over 20 years since Belgium co-hosted Euro 2000 with the Netherland­s. Did you watch that tournament? What are your memories of it?

I was just a small boy but I remember all the excitement around the country. It was not a successful tournament for us but it is always an honour to be asked to host a European Championsh­ip or World Cup.

Is there a greater sense of anticipati­on for this tournament after last year’s postponeme­nt?

Sport is so important for so many people. I know that during lockdown it wasn’t just playing football that I missed but also watching football on TV as well, and NBA and Formula One too. It was disappoint­ing for fans last summer but it had to be safety first. Hopefully by the time the tournament comes around the world is in a better place and fans can enjoy being at the stadiums.

Are you disappoint­ed that Belgium won’t be hosting any matches?

It would have been nice, especially to play in the European Championsh­ip in your own country in front of your own fans. It isn’t something I have thought about so much – the nations have been chosen and we just want to be successful.

You have been drawn alongside Denmark, Russia and Finland – what do you make of your group?

It is a strong group and you look at the three opponents we have and there is not one easy game. They all have players that can cause us problems and we need to be ready.

You’ll be playing Denmark in Copenhagen and Russia in St. Petersburg. Do you think that puts you at a big disadvanta­ge, or are you relishing the challenge of being the away team?

Maybe for them they are thinking about home advantage, especially if fans are allowed inside the stadium, but for us we are just looking at them as games we want to win. Good for them they are in their home stadiums, but for us our objectives are clear.

Belgium are the No.1 ranked team in the world – do you think that makes you the favourites for the tournament?

If we are ranked number one, two or three it doesn’t change things. We know that this current Belgium squad is a special group of

players and we want to win things. I don’t talk about us being favourites, but we are entering the tournament to try to win it.

What other nations concern you going into the tournament?

There are so many good teams and I don’t want to disrespect anybody by not talking about them all. If I have to talk about one, though, it is France. They are world champions for a reason, but they will not be the only strong team who are going to be confident of success.

What is the spirit like in the squad – are you confident of going far in the tournament?

The spirit is good – we know this is a very good group of players and we are all playing for each other and also the coach. It would be nice to be successful for the fans.

“[Eden Hazard] is ready to explode again for Real Madrid and for Belgium”

Reaching the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup was a huge moment for Belgium and you received an heroic welcome when you returned. Looking back now, do you feel more disappoint­ed that you didn’t go further, or pride for achieving what you did?

It is possible to feel both emotions, I think. It is an achievemen­t to reach the semi-finals of a World Cup but, of course, when you go that far in a competitio­n it is always a disappoint­ment not to reach the final and try to win it.

This Belgium team is often referred to as a “golden generation” – how do you feel about that label?

Most labels like that are invented by the media so it is not something we pay much attention to. What we do know is that this is a very special group of players and we do want to achieve things, but because we know we are capable of it not because of labels.

The likes of yourself, De Bruyne, Hazard, Alderweire­ld and Vertonghen are all approachin­g 30 or already in their 30s – do you feel any sense that you’re running out of time to win a tournament? As a goalkeeper I feel like I have many good years ahead of me – and even outfield players can play at the top until their mid-30s. The reality is no matter what your age European Championsh­ips and World Cups only come around once every four years, so there is always a limited opportunit­y to win them.

Do you feel that you have to win something to consider this generation a success?

It is important to focus on the fact that we want to and that we know we can rather than looking at it as a pressure. We know we can, we know it requires hard work and maybe even a little bit of luck.

How has the team dealt with Vincent Kompany’s retirement? Have new leaders emerged in the squad?

Vincent was not just one of the great Belgium defenders but one of the greatest defenders ever. He was our leader but players can’t play forever – everything must come to an end. He was a big leader for us, but there is a lot of experience in this squad and it is important for many of us to step up.

Are you a leader, or do you prefer to leave that to other senior players?

I am one of the more experience­d players in the squad and I do have a responsibi­lity to step up and help the younger players. As a goalkeeper you need to have the confidence to be commanding. It doesn’t have to mean shouting but it is about having authority.

Eden Hazard has had plenty of injury problems – how difficult has it been for him at Real? Is he still the player that won the Silver Ball at the World Cup?

It has been unfortunat­e for him that he has had so many injuries since joining Madrid, but I feel he is ready to explode again for Madrid and for Belgium. We must allow him time to find his sharpness and fitness again, but I am confident that we will see the best of Eden Hazard again. Everybody knows he is one of the best players in the world.

And your top goalscorer, Romelu Lukaku. Do you feel that he is slightly underappre­ciated or does he now get the credit he deserves?

He is not underappre­ciated by anybody in the Belgium national team, I can promise you that. If he is, I cannot understand why. At Everton he scored many goals, at Manchester United he scored many goals and now at Inter he is scoring many goals. Then add to that he is Belgium’s all-time top goalscorer, it is clear to anybody who knows football that he is one of the best and most clinical strikers in the world.

 ??  ?? Nations League… Courtois alternated with Simon Mignolet in the Belgium goal as they won their group
Nations League… Courtois alternated with Simon Mignolet in the Belgium goal as they won their group
 ??  ?? Zamora Trophy…Courtois was named La Liga’s best goalkeeper for the third time in 2019-20
Zamora Trophy…Courtois was named La Liga’s best goalkeeper for the third time in 2019-20
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 ??  ?? Star men…Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku will be expected to deliver for Belgium this summer
Star men…Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku will be expected to deliver for Belgium this summer
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