Belgium has a history of top goalkeepers with Michel Preud’homme and Jean-Marie Pfaff both being named world’s best goalkeeper in their time. Preud’homme, with KV Mechelen and Benfica, and Pfaff, of Beveren and Bayern Munich, spread the word about Belgian keepers far and wide. Head off to see Standard Liege and you’ll still hear fans extolling the exploits of Christian Piot and Jean Nicolay – both winners of the “Golden Boot” – in the sixties and seventies.
But since Preud’homme hung up his boots in 1999, there has been a decade without any Belgian keepers doing enough to be remembered along with their illustrious predecessors. But things could be changing. Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto has set a personal record by not having conceded a goal for 750 minutes of Jupiler League football, and he’s hoping to break the Anderlecht record held by Jean-Marie Trappeniers (in the sixties) of 773 minutes. But Proto is not the only game in town and Premiership watchers – of which there are many – were probably surprised to see two Belgian keepers appearing on their screens, at Sunderland and West Ham. So it’s time to check out the Belgian goalkeeping scene in earnest.
First up is Simon Mignolet, who came to the public eye at Sint Truiden in the 2009-2010 season. He did enough to be voted the Jupiler League’s Goalkeeper of the Year and that probably earned him the move to the Stadium of Light. He played over 100 games for Sint Truiden but he’s still only 22. Mignolet is not the first choice at Sunderland but he’s never let the team down when called upon and he’s certainly one for the future. Mignolet was one of three keepers in Belgium’s squad that faced Finland Last week.
Compared to Mignolet, Ruud Boffin came out of left-field and was thrust into the limelight defending West Ham’s nets in December 2010. Like Mignolet, Boffin was born in Sint Truiden but never played for them. He did, though, play about 80 games in the Dutch lower leagues and was signed by the Hammers as cover for Robert Green. Aged 23, he can only improve.
Over in Greece, meanwhile, is Urko Pardo, born in Brussels and with dual Belgian/Spanish nationality. After time as a youngster with Anderlecht and Barcelona, but without any first team appearances, Pardo eventually found his way to Olympiakos in 2009. He’s in his first season in the first team and he seems to be making the position his own. Remarkably, Pardo has only conceded 0.40 goals per game – making him the second best shot-stopper in Europe, after FC Porto’s Helton Arruda. He is apparently on the radar of the Belgian national team, although at 28, he’s a few years older than some of the competition.
That brings us back to Anderlecht’s Silvio Proto, who is currently the fourth-ranked keeper in Europe, behind Barcelona’s Victo Valdes, having conceded just 0.58 goals per game this season. Proto’s been around awhile – he’s 27 – and was once seen as a shoe-in to be Belgium’s keeper for years to come. It never happened though and he’s only played a dozen times for the national team. Proto has lacked consistency and tends to make major gaffes, or rather, he tended to. He’s been much more consistent recently and has had 17 clean sheets so far this season. Proto played for Belgium last week against Finland but first choice at the moment appears to be one of the older Belgian keepers, Jean-Francois Gillet.
Gillet, born in Liege, is 31. He only played three times for Standard Liege before moving to Italy. After a brief spell at Monza, he moved to Bari and the rest is history. Gillet recently became Bari’s most capped player with over 300 appearances and he’s the club captain. A specialist in stopping penalties, Gillet’s wish is to stay on at Bari in some capacity after he retires. Gillet made his debut for Belgium at the age of 30 and it appears that his time has come.
Like Gillet, Logan Bailly, 25, started his career with Standard Liege, but he didn’t even get a game. He arrived at Borussia Monchengladbach, via Racing Genk, and six months ago he appeared to be on the road to success. He was playing regularly in the Bundesliga and was first choice for his country. Then it all went wrong; with Monchengladbach at the bottom of the table and conceding goals for fun, Bailly was dropped from the squad. He has not played for a few months and is now out of the Belgian squad too. Bailly has something of a playboy image and he may have to return home – maybe to Liege – in order to make progress.
Then there are the kids. Thomas Kaminsky, 18, was called up to Germinal Beerschot’s first team Last year due to injuries. He’s been there ever since and is one of the most promising players in the league. The son of Polish parents, more people would be talking about Kaminsky if it were not for Thibaut Courtois’ explosive arrival at Genk.
Courtois is also 18 and got his chance at the beginning of the season as he was the only keeper available at Genk. He is now first choice in a team that is pushing for the title and is also a regular in the Belgian under-19 team. Despite his height, 6’ 4” (1m 93), he’s quick to get down to the ball when necessary and for a teenager, he has an air of maturity. Courtois could be the one to join the ranks of Preud’homme and Pfaff, and maybe find himself in the Premiership before too long.