Villa v Fulham: Cutting through the myth of Benteke's boots
Jean-Pierre Benteke, a strict military man who pulled his family out of Africa under President Mobutu's hardline Zairese regime, perused his son Christian's school report with undisguised contempt and swiftly and ruthlessly announced his decision.
"My dad was frustrated because I was not doing well enough in school, so he took my boots, cut them up with a knife and said I could not play for my club again until I passed all my exams," Villa's leading goalscorer recalls with a wry smile on the eve of a Barclays Premier League game against Fulham when Benteke's boots have been elevated to the status of prized possessions.
"Of course, I continued to play football in the street with my friends but for a whole year I was not able to play for my club. I was nine years old I think and I was devastated because all I wanted to do was play football. But also I understood. My father wanted the best for me and it was important to him that I get a good education too. So I applied myself at school, passed all of my exams and after a year I got a new pair of boots. I was so happy."
The young Christian continued his education in Liege and rejoined La Pierreuse, a local boys' team. From that point in his life onwards he knew to respect and embrace physics as much as he did the physiology behind sticking a football in the net. By the age of 13, he had grown to 6ft in height, bore a frame to match and he required a photocopy of his identity card to be left at his club to prove he was not older.
No observer of Premier League football would require photographic ID to identify Benteke now, of course. The 22-year-old Belgian international striker has scored or provided the assist for 19 of Villa's 35 Premier League goals this season.
The focal point of a strong, potent Villa attack, he was won more aerial battles than any player in the top five leagues of Europe this season and his physicality and strength have overpowered the likes of Chris Smalling, Martin Skrtel and, in last weekend's uncompromising encounter at Stoke, Ryan Shawcross and Robert Huth.
Intelligently and innovatively, he has preoccupied defenders and linked up to a degree that has suggested an almost innate understanding with Andi Weimann, who has shone even in the big man's shadow. Quietly, almost imperceptibly, Gabby Agbonlahor has equalled Dwight Yorke's Premier League goalscoring record for Villa, benefitting also from Benteke's leading the line and his disciplined, forceful game. "He's an immense reference for Villa," Brendan Rodgers, the Liverpool manager, opined recently.
"Playing here in England and for a great, historic club such as Aston Villa, this is unbelievable for me. It is an honour," Benteke intones with characteristic modesty [his English lessons with the Club's players' liaison officer, Lorna McClelland, meaning that he is now almost fluent in his fourth language, in addition to French, Flemish and Congolese Lingala]. "When I started playing football I played in the streets, with my mates in the evenings. It was more fun that way. In Liege they have set up pitches all other the city, some are shale and some are synthetic but there were a lot of places for us to play. At times I even played in my bare feet - football was all I ever wanted to do.
"My parents are happy for me now. My father is a very hard man. He tells me that the career of a footballer isn't long so I must take full advantage of it. It will all be finished soon enough. My mother is much softer. She speaks with her heart. My dad tells me the reality. If I am rubbish in a game, he lets me know. He doesn't mince his words. Sometimes he says that he is pleased with me but he will tell me when I am rubbish. Even though, he is hard, he has brought me and my brother and sister up well.
"This is the best league in the world and it's normal that there will be pressure surrounding games. As I've said before, if I was scared of pressure, I'd be playing ping-pong! We have to fight because of where we are in the league but we know we can do something about this. We believe in ourselves, we believe in each other, the manager believes and the fans are behind us. We are growing as a team, we know we have to do our job and we will. When my father has spoken to me about my responsibilities as a person, he has always said, 'Be a man and be confident in yourself.' So this is how I am.
"We're a good team. Sometimes we have been unlucky in games but we are learning and growing together and it will take time with this team. Sometimes we play well but we have not won the game. This happens. Sometimes you have to win the game when you don't play well and you learn this. We have been playing well for a few months now and we are getting results now, too. We just have to keep believing and keep playing to our strengths and we will come through."
Mature beyond his years, Benteke is not only taking on his shoulders the responsibility of spearheading Villa's incursions into increasingly wary opponents, he has also taken January signing Yacouba Sylla under his wing, driving the French midfield player to and from training [they live in adjacent apartments], helping him advance his English and taking turns cooking evening meals. They even shop together for groceries. "I try to help Yacouba as much as I can, we get on really well and it's great to have another good young player in the squad and in the team as we continue to improve and get better," Benteke says.
"I have been here a little longer, so I can help him to settle in because already I feel settled here in Birmingham. Everything is here, the shopping centre, the restaurants, you have everything you want. If you want to eat or enjoy a coffee in a cafe, you can find everything. This is a good thing for a player coming to a new club and a new city for the first time.
"For me, it's good because, for example, I don't like to eat always the same food. I like to change. I like variation. Everybody in the team has helped me a lot to settle. This is a very good group of players and all of the players are really good friends. The whole environment is really fantastic. This helps, of course, when we step out on the pitch to play. We play as team-mates and as friends and the close relationships mean we will fight for one another in the games, right to the end. We saw this against Stoke and we saw this in many games. We will see this right to the end of the season."
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