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Jul 4, 2014

Thibaut Courtois can topple Argentina

Belgium coach Marc Wilmots believes his team-oriented approach can overcome the individual brilliance of Lionel Messi and Argentina when the two sides meet in the World Cup quarterfinals on Saturday.

BRASILIA, Brazil -- He is the kid who slid out of the net and into so many nightmares, the greatest goalkeeper on Earth, the black-gloved reckoning of America. And before the Belgian nicknamed "The Tarantula" duels Argentina and Lionel Messi on Saturday, it is worth rewinding the tape to Tuesday. It is worth revisiting the play -- "The Play," as we so would have called it -- one last time.

The clock reads 114:20. The United States, a team in need of another miracle, sets about executing one they have actually practiced.

There is Michael Bradley, setting up in front of the ball, which sits a couple of yards outside the penalty arc. There is Jermaine Jones, abruptly galloping past, a distraction slanting rightward. There is Bradley, nudging the ball left, to Chris Wondolowski. And there is Wondo's pass right, to the foot of a surging Clint Dempsey -- who suddenly finds himself in front of the goal, just as his manager ingeniously designed it, all alone.

ArgentinaArgentina
BelgiumBelgium
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Match 60
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At this very instant -- 114:22 -- zoom out on Dempsey. With Belgium up 2-1, and the World Cup hanging in the balance, you'll notice something: the Red Devils have been shocked into collective immobility. Every one of their players has been frozen, midstream, not unlike the most famous statue in Brussels.

Every one of their players, that is, but one.

Thibaut Courtois is 6-foot-6, making him a skyscraper of a goalkeeper, not merely lanky but all sorts of angular. His ears, eyes, chin, haircut and hairline -- which seems not to recede from the territory of his forehead but invade it -- make the 22-year-old look like U.S. congressman Paul Ryan after a sip of mutagen ooze.

By the time the clock even hits 114:24, Courtois has somehow done the following: read the play; resolve that he's not going to wait for Dempsey but attack him; explode off the line like he's sliding under a closing blast door; somehow kick the ball free from Dempsey with his right foot without fouling; and all but seal America's fate. On a night most remembered for the heroics of 35-year-old U.S. keeper Tim Howard -- who saved more shots against Belgium, 16, than anyone in a half-century of World Cup play -- here was the save of the game.

Thibaut Courtois' rise is made all the more impressive by the fact that he's only 22.
Thibaut Courtois' rise is made all the more impressive by the fact that he's only 22.

"He's so young," Howard said of Courtois last week. "He's tall, he's long, he's a good shot-stopper, which every goalkeeper has to be. Mentally he seems very, very strong for a young kid, which is tough."

This World Cup has been a tournament defined by remarkable shot-stopping, well beyond the showcase of Belgium-USA. Germany's Manuel Neuer, 28, blanked France on Friday and seemed to play as much sweeper as goalie against Algeria. Mexico's Guillermo Ochoa, 28, shut out Brazil while averaging a save every 15 minutes. Costa Rica's Keylor Navas, 27, has allowed two goals in four games for the underdog Ticos. And the tears of Brazil's 34-year-old Julio Cesar, after beating Chile in a nerve-wracking shootout, are now seared into this country's memory.

And yet: if you were to hold a worldwide draft of all keepers -- in the World Cup and out -- the first and second choices would be Courtois and Neuer, likely in that order. Not least because the former has an undeniable advantage built in.

Courtois won a UEFA Europa League, a UEFA Super Cup, a Copa del Rey and La Liga with Atletico Madrid.
Courtois won a UEFA Europa League, a UEFA Super Cup, a Copa del Rey and La Liga with Atletico Madrid.

"He has 15 more years to improve," Belgian defender Jan Vertonghen told me of his precocious teammate. "I don't know where he can improve, but he will."

It has been difficult for anyone in world football to pinpoint something close to a weakness. Courtois, who hails from the Lilliputian city of Bree (population: 14,500), is the son of two pro volleyball players; his reflexes and agility, startlingly unhindered by his frame, seem appropriately lab-built.

At 16, he debuted for Racing Genk in the Belgian Pro League. The next year, his first full season as a professional, he won a title and was named Belgium's goalkeeper of the year. The year after that, at 19, he signed a contract with Chelsea, where things really got interesting.

Lodged behind decorated veteran Petr Cech, the club opted to loan Courtois to Spain's Atletico Madrid, where he's played the past three seasons and wielded the outsize impact of a goaltender in the NHL. Courtois won the 2012 Europa League, where he shut out Athletic Bilbao in the final. He won the 2012 UEFA Super Cup, where he beat none other than Chelsea 4-1. He won the 2013 Copa del Rey, where he was voted man of the match against Real Madrid. He made it to the 2014 Champions League final after knocking out the Blues, again, thanks to what Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho dubbed "an impossible save" on a John Terry header. And in May, a week after turning 22, he clinched Atletico's first La Liga title in 18 years by drawing Messi and superpower Barcelona 1-1.

"It was unthinkable to achieve all of those things," Courtois told reporters after winning La Liga. "It is a beautiful thing. It is more than a fairy tale."

Now in the World Cup quarterfinals -- as rumors fly that Chelsea is finally ousting Cech and summoning Courtois back to Stamford Bridge -- the fairy tale continues. Entering this round, per Prozone, the Red Devils have conceded the fewest goals per 1,000 possessions. And Courtois has surrendered as many goals in four games -- two -- as he has clean sheets. One was a penalty kick in the opener against Algeria; the other, an extra-time strike by U.S. sub Julian Green that set the stage for Courtois snuffing out Dempsey.

"Thibaut has been doing wonderful things," Belgium manager Marc Wilmots said. "He's very young, but he's sure of himself, and he works. After each match, he asks if he can train again. He studies details."

Except for right now. To prepare for this rematch with Messi here in Brasilia -- a showdown between the planet's best player and its best goalkeeper -- Courtois says he'll be doing less studying than ever.

- Miguel Delaney: Messi vs. Courtois intriguing subplot
- John Brewin: Messi gives hope to faltering Argentina

On Dec. 16, 2012, Messi managed to score twice on the keeper in a 4-1 drubbing of Atletico. But in their last seven meetings since, the pride of Argentina has yet to find the net.

"I don't have to watch videos of him because I know him so well," Courtois said this week. "But even if you watch videos of him, he's so unpredictable that it's impossible to study him to know what he's going to do."

Of course, as a rewinding of one near-miracle shows, that makes two of them.

Pablo S. Torre

A senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com based in New York. You can watch him every week on TV shows such as Around the Horn, The Sports Reporters and Olbermann. Follow him on Instagram (@pstorre) and Twitter (@PabloTorre).