Skip navigation

Benteke: Why my story shows how football unites

Features

Christian Benteke was forced from his birthplace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a child, and he and his family had to adapt fast. Here, he tells the Palace programme how his life across countries has shaped his attitude today. 

There are plenty of less-than-complimentary words thrown around when people are forced from one country to another. New arrivals are condemned as part of an ‘influx’, different nationalities and identities dismissed as being by their very nature just that: different.

There are countless examples in football, as in so much of life, proving that this exposure to interesting ideas and cultures can lead to so many good things. Christian Benteke is one of these examples.

His story encapsulates this idea both on and off the pitch, from his disorientating arrival in Europe as part of the Congolese diaspora and his subsequent embrace into a welcoming community, to his domineering arrival into the Premier League as part of Belgian’s ‘golden generation’ and subsequent enriching of the world’s most renowned footballing competition.

It takes luck, yes, and it certainly takes bravery. But what becomes clear from Benteke’s story is how much hard work is involved, too.

His is a story that starts properly in Liège, as a two-year-old Benteke and his mother grappled with an entirely new world. “I came with my mum, because at that time there was war [in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] and my dad was in the military,” he remembers. “He sent us here for safety, and then he joined us after a year or so.

“In the beginning, it was weird… because I used to be in Africa seeing a lot of young black kids. I was saying to my mum: ‘Wow, I can see young white kids.’ For me it was like something new. My mum explained it was normal.

“But I adapted quickly, because I was raised in Belgium. I started to play [football] because of my cousins; I was seeing them having fun and being happy. I wanted to join them, and that’s how I got into football. That’s how football can connect all the different countries and communities.”

Quote Icons

That’s how I got into football. That’s how football can connect all the different countries and communities.

Christian Benteke

Benteke grew up in an area awash with young talent: Axel Witsel, Nacer Chadli and others were among his teammates as a child playing football on the street. They were the shoots of a remarkable generation of Belgian talent that would later go on to conquer the Premier League.

But Belgian superstars were a relative unknown in English football. To follow his dream of emulating Thierry Henry, Benteke and co. would have to take a leaf out of the former Arsenal man’s book – and that of his current manager, Patrick Vieira.

“It just needs one who will open the door for the rest of them,” Vieira said at a recent press conference about the swathes of French talent arriving in the 1990s. “When [Eric] Cantona came, then people thought: ‘Oh, French players could adapt to the Premier League.’ That opened the door for the rest of us.”

Much like Vieira, Benteke was part of that early diaspora. “I felt it, because I was one of the ones who has been here the longest and with the most caps,” he says, looking back. “It is a great feeling to represent this country at the highest football level.

“Everybody thinks this is the best league in the world. There were a few players doing well – [Vincent] Kompany, [Marouane] Fellaini, [Thomas] Vermaelen. Those players were doing so well that it gave us the belief that we could do the same.

“I was at Standard Liège with Fellaini, and I saw him going to Everton… scoring goals in front of the fans with that atmosphere. I said: ‘Me too, I want the same.’

“Other players have seen me and also wanted the same. I had a chat with a few players. They asked me how the league is, and I gave them good advice.”

Of all the nations that have so indelibly left a mark on the Premier League, those players from Belgium were almost uniquely poised for success in adapting to a new country.

Quote Icons

It’s so important to settle quickly and learn the language. I saw many good players who couldn’t perform because they weren’t speaking.

Christian Benteke

“It’s because our culture is different,” Benteke explains. “In Belgium there are [already] different nationalities. In the national team you can see Africans, Belgians, Dutch, even Vietnamese and Chinese.

“This is our strength. By bringing different cultures we have got different approaches to the game. Different skills, different football learning. That brings out the best in all of us.”

Those very differences impacted one of the most important aspects of moving to a different league. “It’s so important to settle quickly and learn the language,” Benteke says. “People think it’s just about the football skills and the players, but it’s much more.

“If you can’t communicate with the players, even though football is easy and you know the game, it’s hard. I saw many good players who couldn’t perform because they weren’t speaking.

“I was used to it. In Belgium we speak three languages: French, Dutch and a German part. In my previous club before joining Aston Villa [Genk], we were already different nationalities and the coach was talking English because of the foreign players.

“I was already in that kind of different culture. It was just about settling quickly and speaking English more fluently than when I was in Belgium.”

For someone desperate to play in the Premier League, learning English had always been a key target for Benteke. But that meant more than lessons and textbooks; in his opinion, it required full immersion.

“It was my dream to come here and play for a Premier League team, so I put myself on a path where I wanted to learn English quite quickly,” he says. “I wanted to understand and I knew it was important to understand. That’s why I settled in quickly.

“I was doing courses at home, [learning] vocabulary. But also I was watching TV in English, like Sky. A lot of players, when they come, they don’t speak really well, but they still want to have the same habits: TV in their own language, eating their own food.

“These are small details, but they are important: if you are getting [used] to a new country, try to understand the new country and their language. It will help.”

Quote Icons

When I was going back and playing with my friends, it’s not ‘Benteke’, it’s ‘Christian’. I still have to prove that I can be part of their game.

Christian Benteke

At Crystal Palace, Benteke can now help to guide players whose abilities in their new language are still taking time to develop. It’s a technique he learned from his mother all those years ago, as he clutched her hand on the way to school.

“When I came [to Belgium], I was speaking my [Congolese] language,” he remembers. “My mum said: ‘No, you have to speak in French. You are going to school and you will speak only French.’ She was still talking to me in my own language, but I responded in French.”

That means, in essence, having the bravery to take risks. “It’s about being willing to do it,” Benteke explains. “For example, JP [Mateta] is someone whose English is not the best, but he tries. The most important thing is don’t be worried about making mistakes.

“For you guys who speak perfect English, you know that we are not in our own country and we might make mistakes. When I was at Villa I was not really talking that much because I was scared.

“Now there are times when I might make mistakes, but I don’t care. And JP doesn’t care about making mistakes. Sometimes when he doesn’t understand something, he will ask me and say: ‘Chris, what does that mean?’ or ‘Can you translate that for me?’”

It seems as if Benteke’s upbringing plays no small part in him being part of the great Belgian generation to take English football by storm, and his embrace of a sport in a community where race and background were secondary considerations to ability with a ball.

Indeed, when he has time to return to the cages where he first played, his Premier League record – with almost 300 appearances to his name – is of no immediate interest.

“The beauty of street football is that it doesn’t really matter if you play for a football club or not,” he says, smiling. “When I was going back and playing with my friends, it’s not ‘Benteke’, it’s ‘Christian’. I still have to prove that I can be part of their game. It’s pressure, but a different pressure.

“That’s the beauty of it. It’s not about the Premier League, it’s not about what I've done here. They just see me as Christian, and [say]: ‘If you want to play, we have to win. Let’s go!’”

This final story, and the warmth with which he tells it, goes some way to boiling down what football is really about. Crossing borders and embracing new cultures is difficult, and it takes hard work on both sides – Benteke found that out in both his early childhood and his early career.

But if you put in that hard work, the results can be so enriching: a new understanding of the game we love, and that special feeling of community that makes football unlike any other sport anywhere else in the world.