Belgian libero matches superstar brother for plaudits


Step forward Valerie Courtois, Belgium's libero and younger sister to Chelsea's superstar goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois.

Trieste, Italy, October 6, 2014 - When Chelsea defeated Arsenal in the Barclay's Premier League on Sunday afternoon, there was one international volleyball player with a vested interest in the result. Step forward Valerie Courtois, Belgium's libero and younger sister to superstar goalkeeper, Thibaut Courtois - he of a multimillion pound transfer to one of the biggest clubs in the European arena.

Valerie, meanwhile, had other pressing concerns. Namely her team's final, second round match against Croatia in the Women's World Championships that evening. 

The game, which took place in the PalaTrieste - the venue located on Italy's Adriatic coast - meant the latest victory for her brother, also a Belgian international, had to take a back seat. Though this might have made for a healthy distraction. Thibaut was taken to hospital for "precautionary measures" following a heavy collision with Arsenal striker, Alexis Sanchez.

"I don't watch him often because I don't have the sports channels at home," she says. "But I follow it. Last year and this year I had the Barclay's Premier League app, so I get notified when his games start, or when there's a goal. I follow it like that. 

"Last year, when he played at Atletico Madrid (2013/14 champions in La Liga - the Spanish top division) I tried to watch some of the games he played in, and I like to go watch a game in real life. It is different watching it in real life than on the TV. You don't have the atmosphere at home."

Despite the headlines made by her brother in both the Premier League and La Liga, not to mention several impressive performances in the 2014 World Cup, it was Valerie that made the grade first, representing Belgium in 2008 - three years before her brother made his international debut in 2011. At club level she reached the top flight first having previously played for VDK Gents Dames (2008-2011) and VC Oudegem (2011-2013) in Ere Divisie Dames, though she is currently "inactive".

The nuts and bolts for this success can be found in the Courtois elders. Both mum and dad were keen volleyball players and gently encouraged their three children to take up the sport. 

"We were always playing sports," she says, "but all kinds of sports. Because they both played volleyball, we went to the games, and just when you're there you have fun with the ball. At home we all learned to play volleyball, when we went on holiday we played beach volleyball. 

"But we played all kinds of sports. I also played basketball for a short time and in the summer, I used to play tennis - I had lessons and I played in tournaments. My brother also did some volleyball in the beginning, but he quickly chose to play football."

Interestingly, Valerie can see the similarities in both her role and the position taken up by Thibaut on the football field. Both arrive with immense pressure - one mistake can lead to a dropped point, or a conceded goal. Both are similar physically, too.

"You have to be able to read the game," she says. "You also have to choose your position well. There's a big difference between being positioned well and being a meter out. But what's really important is your reactions and being able to get to the ground quickly to reach the ball."

These days, Valerie is used to the attention being lavished upon her brother. "It's not weird seeing him play in front of 60,000," she says. "But in the beginning it was funny, during the first year when he started playing in Belgium for Genk.

"He became the first team goalkeeper for them and there was a lot of attention because he was so young. Then I saw him appearing everywhere and getting good comments on his games. When he played for the national team, that's when I thought, 'Oh, OK, now you're playing serious.'" 

But Valerie has made huge strides of her own. She won a historic bronze medal with "The Yellow Tigers" in the 2013 European Championships. On top of this achievement, she was voted 'Best Libero' of the competition.

"I couldn't believe it," she says proudly. "That was a great achievement, and also it was a great tournament for us because it wasn't expected for us to be in the finals. And then we came third! 

"That was already a big achievement for our team and for me to be voted best libero. That was something of a surprise. It was very nice to have a reward."

Currently seeking a new club, Courtois recently completed her degree in Bio-Engineering; her ambition is to play abroad, though she acknowledges that opportunities for liberos are more limited that other positions. There's only one per team after all, and a number of the top slots are already taken. 

No matter where she goes next, her parents will follow her career trajectory in the same way they trail that of her brother. 

"They travel a lot," she says. "My mum was not here for the games in Trieste, but she was with me during the group stages when we played in Bari. They're proud and follow us everywhere. And if the games clash, mum goes to one and dad the other!"


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