Christian Benteke was never supposed to be a footballer. 

His father, Jean-Pierre, was a serious, strict man, an officer in the Zairian army during the Mobutu regime. He fled what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo when Christian was just three years old. It was a sacrifice he made to offer his young son a chance at stability and an education, not to give him the luxury of fantasizing about the unattainable. 

Benteke, though, would not be deterred. 

Sitting in a room at D.C. United’s training facility, a warm smile creeps across his face as he tells the story.

“I think he was dreaming that I’d be a doctor, or a lawyer or something,” says Benteke. “He wanted me to go to school, to university. But my dream was to play football. I wanted my friends, my family, all of them to see me on television, playing football.”

His football journey started in the streets of Liege, Belgium, where his family landed after their departure from Zaire. He’d cross town to participate in pickup games with his cousins, often passing the Stade de Sclessin — the home ground of Belgian powerhouse Standard Liège — and fantasizing about an eventual star turn there. 

His far-fetched fantasies grew a bit more realistic as Benteke’s talent landed him, at age six, at a local youth club, JS Pierreuse. At the school, which sat in the shadow of the housing projects where he’d been playing with his cousins, Benteke honed his talents. His focus became singular. His eye for goal, and his first touch, were refined with Pierreuse. And for a moment, his studies began to lag behind. 

So when a nine-year-old Benteke returned home one day to tell his father that he’d failed an exam, his father took matters — and young Christian’s footwear — into his own hands. He cut up his son’s boots with a knife, telling him he’d get a new pair if he got his grades up. It was the last time Benteke brought home a bad report card.

Some 20 years later, Benteke has arrived in the United States toward the tail end of a very distinguished career. He spent over a decade in the Premier League and, at times, seemed like one of the league’s elite goalscorers. During that same stretch, he became a regular with the Belgian National team. Yet the entirety of Benteke’s career has been equally filled with complexity — frustrating omissions for club and country, injuries and more.

His move to MLS side D.C. United, as Benteke tells it, is as much about self-discovery as it is about football. After so long spent at the very highest level of the game, and so long dealing with the pressures and demands that accompany that lifestyle, Benteke has arrived keen on rediscovering his form on the pitch and listening to his own needs off of it. For once, he says, he is carving his own path forward.

“I wanted to do something that I would choose myself,” says Benteke. “Something that would make me happy when I wake up.”