Gaetan Coucke: From Champions League ball boy to Champions League keeper
The last time Genk reached the Champions League group stage, Gaetan Coucke was a ball boy, sitting behind a goal against Chelsea.
Eight years later, on a Thursday morning, he's all smiles despite conceding four goals against European champions Liverpool the night before.
That's normal for Genk's young keeper, who goes by the nickname 'Cookie'.
"I'm usually in a good mood, relaxed," he says.
Genk's hopes for Champions League respectability - they've never won a group-stage match - may ultimately hinge on Coucke, who turned 21 on Sunday, two days before the Belgians play the return fixture with Liverpool at Anfield.
Coucke's fortunes changed dramatically this summer. Veteran Danny Vukovic, who helped Genk to the league title last season, tore an Achilles tendon. Coucke, who had returned from a season on loan in the second division with Lommel, was named starter.
"I was a bit surprised," Coucke said of the club's decision not to sign an experienced keeper. "Especially when you get into the Champions League. But it gives me a lot of confidence. Now I'm trying to prove myself in every match."
'It was a great moment'
Coucke has led a charmed football life. He's a local kid who has been with Genk from under-nine level.
As a shaggy-haired 12-year-old, he interviewed Jelle Vossen, then a Genk forward, for a club video featuring the pair chatting in the stands, by a goal, and even while lying on the grass.
He performed ball boy duties in the 2011-12 campaign, Kevin de Bruyne's last season at the club and a year after star goalkeeper and current Real Madrid keeper Thibaut Courtois had left.
Coucke was behind the goal when Vossen equalized against Chelsea in a 1-1 draw in the Champions League at Luminus Arena.
"It was a great moment," he says, adding that he was also able to study Chelsea's Petr Cech up close.
When it comes to signature headgear, though, Coucke is more Guillermo Ochoa - Mexico's veteran keeper - than Cech, with a headband holding back his long locks.
Coucke's personality is also evident in his frequent use of the surfer-style 'hang loose' hand wave - both on the pitch and with emojis on Instagram, accompanying photos of big saves as well as a shirtless-in-Ibiza pic. And yes, the cookie emoji is in full force, too.
It's a laid-back persona that has served him well.
"He keeps calm. He's not nervous," says Ronny Gaspercic, a former Genk goalkeeper from the 1980s and 90s who went on to play in Spain.
Gaspercic says the club is showing a commitment to local youth - Coucke grew up in nearby Tongeren.
"He still has a lot to learn, but that's normal. He's done well until now," Gaspercic adds.
Even though Genk have conceded 10 goals - the second-highest total among 32 Champions League teams - Coucke has mostly escaped criticism. Defensive lapses have largely been to blame.
Genk's Group E opener was a disaster, as Red Bull Salzburg led after two minutes and went on to a 6-2 victory. Genk then drew 0-0 with Napoli and lost 4-1 to Liverpool.
Liverpool's third goal that night, Sadio Mane flicking in after a combination with Mohamed Salah, was lightning fast.
"I didn't expect it to be that quick. That one surprised me the most," Coucke says.
He did keep a clean sheet against Napoli, but he made it interesting. He likes to play off his line, and miscommunicated with a defender, who inadvertently diverted a cross to Jose Callejon. Coucke scampered back, dived and blocked Callejon's shot off the post.
Later, Coucke stumbled and fell as Kalidou Koulibaly lined up a volley, which was blocked by a defender.
"I try to play as high as possible," he says. "It's easier for me in some situations to get a ball than to be deeper and make a more difficult save. I know sometimes it's a risk."
'Coucke not worried by Anfield experience'
Coucke showed signs of maturity, even during his spell at Lommel, aged just 19, says supporter Jan Gerits.
"Some of the players, when the game was over, within 10 seconds they were in the dressing room," says Gerits, spokesman for the Green Lions fan club.
"Gaetan was always one of the guys, together with the captain, who would come to the fans to say, 'Hi, thank you for supporting us'."
The Lommel fans selected Coucke for their annual 'golden shoe' award - for the best player of the season - and he has played for Belgium's youth international squads, including a recent U21 call-up.
And while he's not on the same trajectory as Courtois, who went on to play for Chelsea and Atletico Madrid before ending up at Real, few are.
"Courtois is kind of a role model, but following his path is difficult," Coucke says. "He's played for Chelsea, now Real Madrid. I really want to make my own way."
As for his first Anfield experience against the Champions League title holders, Coucke is not worried.
"Just play match by match. Don't think too much about it."