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Benteke on Congolese identity, England's future and Klopp's swoop for him and De Bruyne

3 June 2021

When Christian Benteke volleyed home in the 94th minute at The Amex, he not only secured his name in the headlines, but in Palace folklore.

His goal will live on for decades – and yet curiously as the cameras flashed, the bench erupted and his teammates swarmed around him, he looked the calmest man on the pitch.

“I’m just someone who doesn’t show his emotions that much,” he explains, now the furore has died down. “I always keep my emotion inside of me. That’s just me! It’s just the way I am.”

For someone who expresses so little, off the pitch he is remarkably communicative – a trait which has served him well throughout his career. Growing up as part of a large Congolese community in Belgium, he spoke multiple languages as a child.

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“It [our Congolese identity] affected everything we did at home,” Benteke says. “My mum speaks our own language to me, my brother and my sister, and now to my own kids as well. We ate Congolese, watched YouTube clips of Congolese music and movies. It’s a big part for me.”

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With stellar players like Claude Makelele and Vincent Kompany also tracing their roots to the African nation, it’s a country that has left a profound mark on European football – and a heritage he shares with new Palace signing Jean-Phillipe Mateta.

“We have discussed it,” he says. “The fact is, I didn’t know him, but for example he knows where I come from in Belgium because he has family in the city next to mine. We are a big community, and most of the Congolese people know each other, or our parents know each other.”

Nonetheless, home for Benteke was firmly in Belgium, where his ambition was to play for Standard Liege – his local side. However, unable to break into the first-team, he was brave enough to seek a move elsewhere.

“It was hard. Obviously I’m from Liege, so you want to succeed in your home town team,” he points out. “I was young and at the time there were a lot of experienced players, so I said to myself: ‘You will have more chance someone else’.

“Genk had a reputation of giving chances to young players, so I went there and managed to become a better player. But then I wanted to go back and succeed in my home town team. As a young player it is not easy, but at the time when I came back for the second time I was like: ‘I’m ready.’”

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But success in Belgium was not enough for Benteke if he was to follow the career path of his idol.

“Thierry Henry,” he bursts out enthusiastically, before we can even finish words ‘childhood hero’. “Everything about him: his style, the way he played, the goals he scored. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come and play in the Premier League, one hundred percent.”

At Standard Liège, his chances of a move to England seemed slim, so back to Genk he went. It was a calculated decision.

“I felt like I owed them something,” he remembers, “Also, I knew that [Thibaut] Courtois had got his transfer from there. When I was there with Kevin De Bruyne, we did well. He got his move to Chelsea, and I got mine to Aston Villa.

“The club has a good reputation abroad for producing young players. So I had to do well with this club in showing myself, and then I would get my move.”

And so, the Belgian diaspora continued – and the national team benefitted as a result. For Benteke, communicating with new environments, through language and experience, can only be a positive in one’s football development. It’s something he thinks can improve the English team in the future.

“In Belgium we already speak three languages,” he considers, “so I think the adaptation from Belgium is not that hard, compared to a player coming from say Argentina or Brazil.

“If you look at Belgium, now our base is in England because two or three seasons ago, more than half of the team was playing here. Now we are even more spread out.

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“I think it’s good because we bring different cultures. Now, the new English generations are also trying to challenge themselves abroad, not only in the Premier League. It’s good for the country.”

Roy Hodgson is perhaps the best example the English game has to offer of a willingness to explore other cultures – and Benteke remembers almost coming a cropper in his early days at Selhurst Park.

“I spoke English with him,” he says. “He never told the French players that he could speak French. Then in training from nowhere, he came to us and said in French: ‘Be careful guys, I can understand you!’

“We were shocked because it was like talking to a French person, it was that good.”

In his early-twenties, Benteke was a key part of an exciting, young Belgian side, and was preparing to demonstrate his talent on the biggest stage. Then disaster struck: he ruptured his Achilles tendon and was ruled out of the World Cup finals.

“It was the hardest period of my career so far,” he remembers. “I was in my top form. I was feeling good, feeling great. I had a lot of plans and ambitions: scoring goals with Villa and then going to the World Cup as potentially the main striker at the time. It was an important moment for me.

“Then all of a sudden you feel like the world goes against you. It felt like the world really fell on me. It was really hard.”

At his lowest ebb, Benteke could rely on those closest to him.

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“I had the right people around me, so I could deal with the injury. My family, my manager too. I never doubted [I could come back]. I was 24 at the time and I had the energy of doing well in the Premier League. I said: ‘You know what, make sure you come back. It will take time to get fit, but just make sure you come back.’

“It was really long. As a young player, your first injury is always the hardest one. But you also learn a lot. Now, if I look back, I will say it was sad but it was a great experience in terms of how I could deal with challenges.”

The next challenge was not far behind. Benteke signed for Liverpool, and like his idol Henry he was at the pinnacle of Premier League football.

“When you play your first game in front of the Kop, you can’t ignore the fans,” he remembers. “It doesn’t matter how focused you are. You see the scenario in your head: ‘I was watching this on TV but now I’m actually on the pitch. Now it’s my turn.’”

But after being signed by Brendan Rodgers, Benteke was dropped by Jürgen Klopp – a manager who had pursued him in the past.

“The weird part was, when I was at Genk I should have signed for [Borussia] Dortmund,” Benteke laughs. “I met Klopp, I spoke to him; he wanted me and De Bruyne.

“Then, when he came to Liverpool it was with a lot of pressure and expectation – the year before Rodgers had come second in the league when Gerrard slipped. The expectation from fans was really high, because the now wanted to finish the job.”

Klopp’s reign saw Benteke’s Anfield career come grinding to a halt, but despite his frustration, his ability to express his thoughts clearly meant there was no bad blood.

“He wanted to play a different football where he knew he wasn’t going to get the best out of me,” he says. “He was honest. It was frustrating because it was just bad timing. I think if we had more time it might have been a different story.

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“But we had a good chat and he told me how things were going to go.”

Upon signing for Palace, Benteke was forced to adapt his game, often playing alongside a partner for the first time.

“I used to play most of the time with just myself up-front,” he explains. “When you play with someone else, you can’t just be doing our own thing and him doing his thing, because it won’t work for the team.

Once again, communication was key.

“There has to be some chat on the pitch. It’s about being willing: if you really want to do it, it will work quickly. But if you put your ego first, it will take longer to work – because then you will just look to score without thinking about your partner or the team.”

Praised by his manager for his attitude in coming off the bench to score the winner against Brighton, Benteke continues to do what he does best – made possible by his ability to express himself eloquently both on and off the pitch. While his outward persona may be that of a man with little to say, the reality could not be more different.

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