Michael Peter Hadad left Trinidad & Tobago on 13 October for London to watch Chelsea and his idol, Thibaut Courtois, play for the first time. The day before the flight he had packed all the Chelsea- and Courtois-related items he owned into his Chelsea bag, together with a Sharpie marker pen. In his childhood innocence he believed that he would meet Courtois and get him to sign every item.
“We just smiled,” recalls his mum, Kathryn. “Not letting him know that we thought that his dreams were too big and perhaps just a bit unrealistic. My son turned 10 last February and told me that the only thing he wanted for his birthday was to see Chelsea and Courtois in person.”
They had been to London once before. They visited Stamford Bridge in 2015 and after touring the dressing rooms Michael Peter bought his first Courtois kit. “He wore it every single day to training and for going out,” Kathryn says. “People used to ask me if he had any more clothes. He became a fan of Thibaut because he says that he saw how he gave shirts to fans and he did nice gestures. He says that he likes his mindset and how he makes saves. He has been goalkeeping for about three years in his Courtois kit – he’s on to his third kit now. Many people who watch him playing games call him Courtois.”
The 10-year old goalkeeper from the QPR Academy in Trinidad flipped his Chelsea calendar to October before leaving his bedroom on the 13th, and there was Thibaut Courtois. “It is a sign, I told him; something is going to happen,” Kathryn says.
They arrived at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park the next day with a banner. It was Kathryn’s idea. The photo of her son on the banner was taken in December 2015 as a Christmas present for her husband. In 2016 Michael Peter was searching the internet for photos of Courtois’ best saves and was startled to see one of Chelsea’s goalkeeper in an almost identical pose, diving into a corner. The banner featured both pictures and declared: “Flew 4,417 miles to see Courtois.”
“I decided that I was going to try to do whatever I could to help him meet Courtois,” Kathryn says. “So when we made arrangements to fly up for the games, I got the idea to make a large sign to increase our chances of being seen. I played around with the idea of what we should write on in to attract Thibaut’s attention and after thinking long and hard, and getting feedback and suggestions from friends, we decided on the 4,417 miles bit … It worked. A little imagination and creativity went a long way in helping a little boy’s dream come true.”
While warming up at Selhurst Park Courtois spotted the banner. He walked towards the fans to greet the family. They asked him for a picture with Michael Peter and got one. “Honestly, I was speechless and moved to tears. It was such a beautiful moment,” Kathryn says. “Never, ever had I expected that to happen. He was gracious and absolutely lovely and we were all very moved that he would make the effort to come across to Michael Peter and pose for a photo.
“He then told us that he would come back after the game to give my son his shirt. This was unbelievable. When Chelsea lost that game, my son was worried that he wouldn’t come back, but he did.”
It was a heartwarming for their son, too. He had had a tough year. Michael Peter had moved schools, which made him very unhappy, and there had been two deaths in the family. The moment and gift could not have come at a better time. “He often goes back to that memory and still can’t believe that it happened,” Kathryn says. “That evening after the game when we got back to the hotel, he hugged the shirt so tightly, kissed it, and hung it from the TV in the hotel room.”
Michael Peter hopes that one day he can go to Cobham to watch Courtois train and train with him. The dream may come true. “I always try to do things for kids,” Courtois says. “It’s not always possible of course, but I know what it feels like to be appreciated by one of your idols. I used to be a ball boy before, with Genk and with the national team. I was a boy who asked for autographs, shirts and gloves too. I can place myself in their minds.
“I think some boys need to show more appreciation to the fans. I’d rather give my shirts to children who still have their heads full of dreams and who I can inspire, than to adults who are asking for other people [and end up selling the shirt on eBay without permission].
“On New Year’s Eve I travelled back to Belgium to visit an eight-year-old battling leukaemia in hospital. If you see how much pleasure and courage he takes from a shirt … That’s why we do it.”
Originally published on theguardian.com