Thibaut Courtois’ Elastic Limbs Carry Belgium Into the World Cup Semifinals

Thibaut Courtois of Belgium celebrates.
Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois celebrates his team’s second goal during the quarterfinal match against Brazil on Friday in Kazan, Russia. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images.

Belgium leaped out to a two-goal lead thanks to a Brazilian own goal and a surgical first-half counter from its front three of Eden Hazard, Romelu Lukaku, and Kevin De Bruyne. It held on to upset Brazil 2–1 thanks to its star goalkeeper, the elastic ectomorph Thibaut Courtois.

Courtois stands 6-foot-5, with most of that length apparently in his neck and shins. When he stands in goal, his wingspan looks nearly infinite. Never has a real human looked more capable of stretching his limbs in the Mr. Fantastic/Elastigirl manner. If Courtois gets put on LeBron James’ team in the Space Jam sequel, they won’t need to use special effects to show him dunking from the center circle.

Against Brazil, Courtois seemed to expand to fill the entire goal. He whipped his ropelike arms in the path of Brazilian headers, dove low to punch out crosses before they reached their intended targets, and easily smothered the shots hit hard but directly at him—not a guarantee on Friday after Fernando Muslera’s howler for Uruguay.

He had help from the post and some profligate Brazil finishing at times, but you can only save the shots that are on target. Toward the end, the Brazilians seemed aware that it would take something truly special to beat him, and in their effort to find the corners of the goal they drove shots high or wide or anywhere where they knew he couldn’t get to them.

There was little Courtois could do on Renato Augusto’s goal. The type of goalkeeper that could get low enough fast enough to even have a chance of slapping that header away couldn’t hope to do half the things Courtois does with his height and reach, including make his best save of the game on this effort from Neymar.

It appears as if Courtois didn’t have time to jump—he just throws his arm at the ball and leaves the rest of his body no choice but to follow.

Brazil-Belgium makes it three straight games in this World Cup in which a goalkeeper has produced a show-stopping save to preserve a lead: Jordan Pickford for England against Colombia in the Round of 16, Hugo Lloris for France against Uruguay in Friday’s other quarterfinal, and now Courtois against Brazil. In a tournament that has seen its share of spectacular goals, the goalkeepers aren’t just throwing their hands up in surrender. Good luck getting a shot past those extended limbs.