Benteke did not have the easiest of starts to life but he has blossomed into a fine footballer
In 1994, when Christian Benteke was three years old, his parents fled their native Zaire to escape the dangers of military dictatorship. The family settled in Belgium as refugees, so for young ‘Chris’ it was not the easiest start to life.
We should not be surprised, then, that the Crystal Palace striker, now 26, does not get too upset about much of the faux melodrama that surrounds the Premier League. He cares deeply about the football but less so about the noise.
This, for example, is his take on the fuss that followed his recent two goals against his old club Liverpool at Anfield. According to today’s peculiar take on the idea of loyalty, Benteke and team-mate Mamadou Sakho — himself at Palace on loan from Liverpool — should not have celebrated together. Their crime? A choreographed handshake.
Christian Benteke is aiming to spearhead his side’s battle to avoid relegation from the top flight
The Crystal Palace striker does not get too caught up in the Premier League’s faux melodrama
‘I think it was quite harsh and wrong to criticise him,’ said Benteke, aware that the brunt of the opprobrium has been aimed at his friend. ‘I told him that if I scored I was coming to him so I went to him.
‘He didn’t do anything wrong. Imagine if he had just sat there and said: ‘No, Chris. Don’t come to me’. I would have been the one angry at him.
‘So it’s normal. He did nothing wrong. You have to do what you feel.’
Benteke has been respectful about his difficult time at Liverpool since leaving for Palace last summer. When we met this week in London, he stressed that he wished that to continue.
A choreographed handshake with Mamadou Sakho caused a stir among some Liverpool fans
‘I don’t like that talk,’ he said, wincing. ‘It’s the past so it’s hard for Liverpool to say: ‘We miss him just because he scored two goals against us’.
‘It’s not like that, the world. I try to look forward. I prefer to look in the mirror and ask myself why it didn’t go as I wanted and then try to improve.’
Benteke has more pressing matters on his mind this weekend than those concerning his old club. We all presumed Palace’s defeat of Liverpool a fortnight ago had ended their participation in the relegation battle. We were wrong.
Since then Palace have lost at home to Tottenham and then Burnley. On Saturday lunchtime, they are at Manchester City and Benteke must hope his team can find something of the form that also saw Sam Allardyce’s team win at Chelsea in recent weeks.
Benteke has won more aerial duels (300) than any other player in the league this season
But the 2-0 defeat by Burnley at Selhurst Park means that Palace are still in a fight for survival
‘We have put ourselves under pressure again after what we have been through,’ he said. ‘So let’s try to finish well and be safe. Consistency is the hardest thing for a football player to get. I don’t think you can tell me a lot of players [in England] this year that have been consistent.
‘That’s why you can see the difference between players like us and Gerrard, Lampard and Drogba. They have been consistent for years and not only for one season. That’s that bar we want to reach.
‘We have to go to City and do the same things as we did at Liverpool and Chelsea. Nothing is impossible so we have to try.
‘Remember, what happened against Liverpool wasn’t an accident. You ask if it was special to score against them and, yeah, that’s right. It was. But I wasn’t surprised because I am a believer. It’s not luck.
‘There were 22 players on the pitch and I was the only one to score two goals so it wasn’t a fluke was it? That must mean something.’
Benteke believes Palace can head to Manchester City this weekend with confidence
The Belgian striker scored twice at Anfield and also scored in the 2-1 win at Chelsea last month
These days it is central defenders who worry about Christian Benteke, the scorer of 16 goals in his first Palace season. As a kid scoring freely in Belgian youth football, it was parents asking all the questions.
‘I was tall but skinny back then,’ he smiled. ‘I used to bring my ID to matches as some other parents were complaining about my size. They thought I was too old to play, older than I said. So I had to bring proof.
‘It was between the ages of 12 and 15. I scored many goals, mainly because I was taller than everybody else. I didn’t realise or think I had anything special.
‘It was my friends and cousins who told me I should try to play professionally so I went to Standard Liege for trials. I was 14 and we won a tournament and I finished as the best scorer and after that I was playing for them. That was it.’
Growing up in Liege, he played his first serious football for a small club — JS Pierreuse — founded by a local priest. The aim was simply to give poor children a route off the streets and into the game.
‘It was kids of different ages and races,’ recalled Benteke. ‘It was a family club. You didn’t need any money to play. The priest would drive around the city and pick up the players. On Wednesday and Friday night, we would train and then he would drop us all back again. Then Saturday I would play a game and then Sunday in the street maybe another game.’
Benteke’s talents were obvious to those who watched him but at times his father Jean-Pierre refused to see. When Chris flunked his fourth year at primary school, his father cut up his football boots with a knife.
Benteke’s 19 league goals for Genk earned him a move to Aston Villa in the summer of 2012
Benteke endured a difficult 12 months with the Reds following his £32.5m arrival from Villa
A military man when in Zaire, Jean-Pierre would have preferred his son to concentrate on education. The two men are close to this day but Benteke still recognises the quiet reserve.
‘I finished my school years and my father realised I wasn’t going to carry on,’ he explained. ‘I just wanted football and he was OK with it by then. My dad is a strong man and he won’t say much.
‘He will say: ‘good game’ or ‘bad game’ but he will never say ‘I am so proud of my son…you are the best player in the world…blah, blah, blah’. That is partly why I am so focused and I hope humble and, yes, I think it’s because of his [military] background.
‘He hasn’t come to watch me in England. Well, twice he came. He came once at Villa in 2012 and once when I was here. Never at Liverpool. He feels like he is disturbing me when I am playing, if he is there. He knows I want to focus. At Liverpool he was upset and worried, though, because he knows I could have done better. I know he cares and I know all he has done for me.
Benteke’s departure stemmed from him not fitting into Jurgen Klopp’s plans as a focal point
The former Standard Liege striker has no regrets about his disappointing spell at Liverpool
‘We left [Zaire] because it wasn’t safe but I am proud of where I am from and at the end of my career I would like to go back and see it. I have never been there.’
From Genk in Belgium, Benteke arrived in the Premier League with Aston Villa in August 2012. His output was impressive as he scored 42 goals in 82 league starts over three seasons. It was not a surprise when Brendan Rodgers signed him for Liverpool for £32.5m in the summer of 2015.
Liverpool, as we know, was harder for him, especially when Rodgers was replaced by Jurgen Klopp two months into that season. Klopp wanted one type of centre forward and Benteke wasn’t it.
The two didn’t speak at the recent Anfield game but Benteke reveals there was a handshake and he is not one to talk about regrets, anyway. Not when he has come this far.
An Arsenal fan as a boy, he used a visit to an aunt in Tottenham as an excuse to hang about outside Highbury.
‘I never went to a match there as it was expensive,’ he smiled. ‘But I used to go to the stadium and the shop and I remember I bought an Arsenal jumper. That was a big present for me, cheaper than a match ticket. It was my dream then to play here in England.’
Benteke got off to a poor start to Sam Allardyce’s reign after a penalty miss against Watford
But the striker has come into his own under the former England boss in the last month
Christian Benteke’s introduction to Sam Allardyce was not the best. Palace were leading 1-0 at Watford during the new manager’s first game on Boxing Day when Benteke fluffed a penalty via one of those stuttered run-ups. The game finished 1-1 and Palace were not to win in the league under their new boss for another month.
‘He didn’t criticise me really badly or anything,’ recalled Benteke. ‘It wasn’t like: ‘This is your fault’. He just said that in those situations we had to take our chances. He has experience. He knows players can miss.’
I ask if there is one thing he has taken from Allardyce already? Benteke said: ‘He is quite straight. If he has something to say he will say it to you and doesn’t care if you are an important player or not. Every player is treated the same.’
I follow by asking if not all managers are like that? Benteke — sensing a question loaded with a bullet called Klopp — just smiled and said: ‘No. But that’s football eh?’
Palace, according to Benteke, have improved under Allardyce on the back of better physical and mental fitness. The striker was criticised for his defending in a kamikaze 5-4 defeat at Swansea last November, a game that did little for the survival chances of manager Alan Pardew, sacked soon after.
‘I felt we couldn’t hold on to a result for 90-95 minutes before,’ Benteke said. ‘Maybe because of the work we were doing on the training ground. Since Sam has come it’s much better. We are harder to play against.
Benteke dinks the ball over Thibaut Courtois to hand Palace the lead against Chelsea in April
It sparked a revival at Selhurst Park but straight losses keeps survival hopes in the balance
‘I remember some of the games where it was mentally and physically [not right]. I know I was criticised after Swansea and it’s not that I don’t care, I just know how hard it is to defend in this league.
‘And I know since then I have been good at set-pieces and have been helping my team. I try to do my best and what happened against Swansea won’t happen now. Now we are more sharp.’
Settled in Wimbledon with his wife Fortune and their two children Jaden and Nylah, Benteke sees a future in London and in the Premier League. His stated aim is simple. ‘Consistency,’ he said.
‘Even my wife admits that, before I met her, she thought footballers were just people who ran after a ball and were given a lot of money,’ he laughed. ‘But since she has lived with me she understands how it really is…
‘As a striker if you don’t score then you go home and you are not happy. You don’t want to talk. You just want to be inside and to forget.
‘I am happy now because she understands it’s not always easy. But I don’t complain. I will never complain.’
Benteke is happy in Wimbledon with his wife Fortune and their two children Jaden and Nylah
EDITED FROM: dailymail.co.uk