Sebastien Thill smashed a 90th-minute winner in the Champions League on Tuesday to give Moldovan champions Sheriff Tiraspol a 2-1 victory at the Bernabeu.
“It’s one of the best and one of the most important goals of my career, that’s for sure!” he said.
It was a waking dream for the previously anonymous attacking midfielder from the footballing backwater of Luxembourg.
Among his many tattoos is one that might have appeared presumptuous a few months ago but now seems prophetic.
They show his number (31), his name (Thill), and the Champions League trophy, which he has long dreamed of playing for.
On Tuesday, he chased that dream hard, running 12km, more than any other player on the field, before finishing with a flourish.
“I had cramp, the team had run so much,” said Thill. “The side were so brave with how we played and luckily enough I was able to score a bit of a stunner.”
Thill’s shot was too good for one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Thibaut Courtois. It ensured victory for a club from the separatist enclave of Transnistria playing only their second match at the group stage.
Sheriff, the perennial Moldovan champions, had already beaten two bigger names, Dinamo Zagreb and Red Star Belgrade, in the preliminary rounds but 13-time European champions Real Madrid are an altogether scarier Goliath.
“After the game we all went crazy,” Thill said. “We’re so happy.”
At home, the club play in front of modest crowds. Football data site Transfermarkt calculates that their average attendance in the Moldovan League this season is 538.
There were officially 5,200 at the club’s first Champions League match against Shakhtar Donetsk on September 15. Even with Covid restrictions and stadium reconstruction, there were still 29,000 for Thill to stun at the Bernabeu.
Thill has come a long way.
Fourteen months ago, he was an amateur at Progres Niederkorn in Luxembourg, training in the evening on a pitch he had mowed during the day as a municipal gardener.
Niederkorn sold him to Tambov, a club struggling in their only season in the Russian premier league. Tambov had to release all but three of their players during the winter break, including Thill, as they went on to finish a distant last in the table before going bankrupt.
“There were salary problems, so I only spent four months there,” Thill told the website footballski.fr, which specialises in Central and Eastern European football.
He was recruited by Sheriff and was impressed because the club possessed an infrastructure that “many first division clubs in Europe don’t have”.
Thill moved to an isolated football outpost in self-proclaimed independent Transnistria whose sovereignty is recognised only by other secessionist territories in the former Soviet Union such as Abkhazia or South Ossetia and whose club still plays in the Moldovan league.
The son of two Luxembourg internationals, Serge, who played briefly in the Belgian lower divisions for Athus, and Nathalie, Thill also has two younger brothers, Vincent and Olivier, who play professionally and are both with Volska Poltava, third in the Ukrainian league.
Sheriff lead the group and next face Italian champions Inter Milan.
As he looked forward, Thill showed he is also mastering the interview techniques of the top professionals.
“We’re in a tough group,” he said. “We have to keep our feet on the ground. We have to take it one game at a time and give 100%.”
“Yes, I scored a great goal, now we celebrate a little and then we get back into the league.”