Thibaut Courtois played 154 times for Atletico Madrid, helping the club to win La Liga, the Copa del Rey, the Europa League and the UEFA Super Cup.
But the Belgium goalkeeper now faces being permanently erased from the club’s history.
Every Atletico player who represents the club 100 times or more is traditionally awarded a plaque on the Paseo de los Jugadores Centenarios — the Centenary Players’ Walk.
On Wednesday, however, Atletico’s social committee decided the criteria should change. They want a new rule to be introduced, with only players who show ‘respect’ to the club commemorated. And that appears to place Courtois’ place in the club’s history in danger.
Because it has been a long time now since Courtois was a darling of the club’s fanbase. His relationship with Atletico’s fans has worsened ever since his controversial 2018 transfer to rivals Real Madrid, not helped by sniping in the press, stuffed rats and desecrated plaques.
But how did we get here? And how did a player who brought so much success to a club end up in such a predicament? This is the story of how relations between Courtois and the club that made him went so very wrong.
Oh dear. So how did it start?
You have to go back more than a decade to truly understand the animosity. But initially, at least, there was no indication things would turn so sour.
It all began when a 19-year-old Courtois joined Atletico on loan in 2011, weeks after Chelsea signed him for around £9 million. Despite his inexperience, he quickly established himself as the first-choice goalkeeper at the Vicente Calderon.
Courtois helped his new side to triumph in his first season at the club, with Chelsea delighted with his development. And, such was their satisfaction with his progression at Atletico, they allowed the Spanish side to keep their young goalkeeper for the duration of the 2012-13 campaign as well.
More success followed. Courtois helped Atletico to win two trophies the following season: the UEFA Super Cup (against his parent club, no less) and the Copa del Rey, with the goalkeeper being named man of the match for his performance against city rivals Real Madrid.
With Petr Cech firmly established as their No 1, Chelsea agreed to loan Courtois to Atletico for a third season. And Atletico took full advantage of his presence.
They were named La Liga champions for the first time since 1996 and Courtois won the coveted Ricardo Zamora Trophy – the award for the goalkeeper with the best goals-to-game ratio.
They also reached the Champions League final, with Real Madrid their opponents once again. For more than an hour, it looked as though Atletico would be getting their hands on another trophy. Those dreams were, however, shattered in the third minute of stoppage time at the end of the 90 minutes.
At full stretch, Courtois still couldn’t stop Sergio Ramos’ sensational header from finding the bottom corner. A period of extra time followed and Atletico – still devastated by losing the lead — were undone.
That was the last of Courtois’ 154 appearances for Atletico. He left as a club legend despite never being a permanent member of the squad.
The move across enemy lines
After starring for Belgium at the 2018 World Cup, Courtois’ agent Christophe Henrotay let it be known that the player was keen on a return to Madrid due to family reasons. Chelsea’s hand was forced and the situation was hardly helped by Courtois failing to return to training following the World Cup in Russia.
On August 8 the move was completed, for a fee in the region of £35million. Courtois was a Real Madrid player. And Atletico supporters were not best pleased by the news.
Their mood wasn’t helped when, at his unveiling, Courtois described his new club as “the best in the world”, before kissing the Real Madrid badge as he walked out onto the Bernabeu pitch.
His plaque on the Paseo de los Jugadores Centenarios (named Paseo de Leyendas at the time) was quickly vandalised. Graffiti was plastered across it — as well as beer — with security guards forced to disperse fans to prevent further damage.
Real Madrid, and Courtois, struggled during the 2018-19 season and Atletico finished above them in the La Liga table. But Real’s new No 1 had the last laugh when he returned to face his former side, who were by that point based at the impressive Wanda Metropolitano.
Goals from Casemiro, Ramos and Bale handed the visitors a 3-1 win, a scoreline Courtois signalled to the stands as he left the pitch. It was little wonder Courtois enjoyed the result: before the match, Atletico fans rained down a shower or stuffed toy rats upon their former hero.
The relationship has only worsened since, with the next flashpoint coming last May, as Real prepared to play in the Champions League final against Liverpool.
The straw that broke the camel’s back
Ahead of the game, Courtois was quizzed about playing in his second Champions League final, but first for Real Madrid.
“I think everybody, no matter how many Champions League titles they’ve won, is thinking about winning the final for Real Madrid,” he said. “When Real Madrid play finals, they win them. This time I’m on the right side of history.”
Atletico Madrid didn’t take his comments lightly.
The club’s president, Enrique Cerezo, responded by saying: “If you want to remove Courtois’ plaque, go with an axe and shovel and remove it.” And that is exactly what they did.
The plaque that once bore the name of their former loanee was dug out of the ground and discarded.
But it didn’t appear to impact Courtois. He produced a string of outstanding saves in Saint-Denis and was named man of the match as Real beat Liverpool 1-0 to win the tournament for a 14th time.
It wasn’t long before Courtois was back at the Wanda Metropolitano, and he had another message for the furious supporters who once adored him. Ahead of a 2-1 victory, as he warmed up, he pointed to a tattoo of the Champions League trophy which had been added to his right forearm in the days after Real’s triumph.
What’s the latest?
Because, on Wednesday, Atletico published a statement in which they acknowledged changing the rules around plaques honouring the club’s former players.
The statement read: “Another of the decisions implemented was the change of name of the current ‘Paseo de los Jugadores Centenarios’ and the criteria to be part of it, including the obligation for all players and former players present there to maintain a respectful attitude towards both the club and its fans.
“In this regard, the committee agreed and sent a letter to the player Thibaut Courtois, considering that he failed to comply with the criteria for maintaining his badge in statements that hurt the Atletico fans, offering him the possibility to rectify and apologise.
“The committee has been informed of Courtois’ response and that there is an open conversation with the goalkeeper to clarify this situation.”
Courtois felt compelled to respond.
His response was, if nothing else, polite. He reiterated his pride at the time he spent with Atletico and claimed that he still reflects on his three seasons at the club with fondness.
But he did not apologise.
He did, however, insist that his comments ahead of the Champions League final in Paris had been misinterpreted. He claimed that he intended no offence and that the subsequent responses to his comments — particularly the instruction from president Cerezo to “go with an axe and shovel and remove” — had inflamed the situation.
He also felt disappointed with the treatment he had received when playing against Atletico and it is understood Real Madrid also feel their rivals should focus on the behaviour of their own supporters before singling out individuals.
It has not gone unnoticed by Real that other players have been subject to abusive behaviour at the Wanda Metropolitano. Some fans were recorded aiming racially offensive chants at Vinicius Junior in September, while a chant referencing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was meanwhile directed at goalkeeper Andriy Lunin.
Given the rivalry between the two clubs and the increasing hostility between Atletico’s supporters and Courtois in particular, it seems unlikely the relationship will improve anytime soon.
(Top photo: Eric Alonso/Getty Images)
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