A couple of weeks ago, Belgium and Aston Villa striker Christian Benteke drew the attention of Europe’s elite when he handed in a transfer request to his West Midlands employer. On Friday, however, after talks with manager Paul Lambert, Benteke has decided to withdraw his transfer request and has extended his contract with Villa until 2017.
It is a decision that will thrill Villa fans the world over, or at least in the greater Birmingham area, beyond which no Aston Villa fans actually exist. In only a single season Benteke, who came over to the Premier League from Belgian outfit Genk, has enforced himself on English football. Using a rare combination of power and skill, he is fast becoming a star, and has all but destroyed the notion that Romelu Lukaku is the only player fit for the Belgian #9 shirt.
Benteke scored 19 EPL goals for the Villans last season, more than any other Villa player in history and good for 4th best in the entire EPL in 2012/13. Only Robin Van Persie, Gareth Bale and Luis Suarez, all truly world class talents, managed to score more goals than the towering Belgian.
On top of that, his 23 goals in 39 games in all competitions is the best return for a Villa player since Juan Pablo Angel graced the Villa Park turf in 2003/04. Clearly, Benteke is not your average player and his exceptional talent has not gone without due recognition. He was nominated for the PFA Young Player of the Year after his excellent début season, finishing as runner-up only to the eventual double award winner Gareth Bale.
In the wake of such a special season, it seemed as if Benteke was destined for a move to a bigger club. At 22 years of age and as one of the most prolific scorers in world football, he was bound to be one of the most sought after prospects in this summer’s transfer window.
The vultures starting circling in the January transfer window, as Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas expressed his interest in the young striker. Benteke then added to the drama himself in May, hinting to English tabloid paper The Sun that he would like to move to the club he supported as a boy, Arsenal. Benteke told the newspaper that “I do not in any way want to feel I didn’t get the most out of my career. I try to get everything…If the chance comes up for me to join a club like Arsenal, I’m convinced we can reach a compromise where everyone comes out a winner.”
Finally, Benteke’s transfer request in July, which came as little surprise following his earlier comments to the press, only helped fuel the speculation that the Belgian would be on his way. The only question seemed to be whether that would be to White Hart Lane, the Emirates or elsewhere.
However, now that Benteke has done a 180 degree turn and decided to withdraw his request, all that speculation will now fall flat. He won’t be going anywhere, at least not for a while. But as one question closes on us, another opens. We will no longer be asking where Benteke will be playing his football in 2013, but we will be asking another very interesting question; was staying at Villa Park the right decision by the young Belgian?
The gut reaction most people come up with is “no”.
One thing is for sure, he doesn’t deserve to be playing at a bigger club. The kid has had a very successful first season in the premier league, but it is exactly that; one season. Nobody can say a player is worthy of playing European club football on the back of a single season of success, no matter how prolific. Benteke’s own manager, Paul Lambert, shared that sentiment when he spoke to British radio show ‘TalkSport’ about his Belgian striker back in May:
“Sometimes we’ve got to have a reality check here…[Benteke has] had one of those seasons where he’s never really been injured and he’s never been suspended except the last day. He’s only a kid starting out and he’s going to have ups and downs like everybody else. Once he starts to play 400 or 500 games you might think, ‘yeah, he’s a good player’. It’s a unique thing, and he’s got to remember that he’s only 22 years of age – he’s got so much to learn. This lad’s only been in Britain for 10 months.”
Lambert is exactly right. It takes time to earn the right to want away, and Benteke has yet to earn that right.
However, whether Benteke deserved a transfer and whether he should have actually done it are two entirely separate matters. Regardless of what we as sports fans think the ethics of the situation are, Benteke did have the opportunity to walk away from Villa Park this summer. Pushing away what onlookers think is “right” for a second, let’s look at this from Benteke’s own point of view.
Imagine it. You are the 4th most prolific goal scorer in the EPL in what is usual a striker’s most difficult season; the inaugural one. You are only 22 years old and have not yet entered your prime as a football player. On top of that, your club supposedly values you at £25M, a price tag reserved for truly exceptional talents. How, then, can it really be smart for you to stay with a club that came within two games of spending this coming season in the nPower Championship? If you were Benteke, would you walk away?
By having such a prolific season in 2012/13, Benteke easily has the credentials to attract a bigger move elsewhere. We already know that Tottenham were interested, and now that most of the other top strikers in Europe are off the market (Cavani, Falcao, Lewandowski, Negrado), you can bet that a number of other clubs needing a goal scorer would have been sniffing around. And there are plenty of clubs that need a goal scorer.
By staying put at Aston Villa, he has missed a big opportunity here to join one of Europe’s elite. Moreover, he runs the risk that he may never get an opportunity like this again. Think about what Paul Lambert has said. He didn’t get injured, he didn’t get suspended. What if he does next season? What if he suffers the sort of injury that players just never fully recover from? What if he doesn’t gel with his teammates next year? Anything could happen, and if he does have a bad season, through injury or poor performance, it will be far more difficult for him to get that dream move.
But even worse than that, he might have hurt his chances of starting for Belgium in the World Cup next year. As soon as the pending EPL season draws to a close, Benteke will be packing his bags and flying to Brazil along with dozens of other top footballers for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. And if you think Benteke isn’t thinking about that, think again. The striker admitted back in May that he had one eye on Brazil when he told The Sun that “Of course playing in the World Cup in Rio is in my head”.
It is an almost universally recognised rule that the bigger team you play for, the more likely you are to earn a starting place in your national side. If Benteke was spending next season knocking in goals at White Hart Lane, Anfield or the Emirates, it would put him in a much better position to compete with fellow Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku for that spot leading Belgium’s attack.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be starting in Rio come June. Benteke is obviously still good enough to make the team while playing his domestic football with Aston Villa. But there is always going to be that creeping feeling that a move up could have solidified his place for Brazil 2014, and if things don’t go right for him at Villa Park this season, he might start to really regret his decision to stay.
So looking at it from a selfish point of view, did Benteke make the right decision by choosing to stay at Villa? Probably not. He is taking a big risk, and putting a hell of a lot of faith in Paul Lambert and this young Aston Villa squad to make things happen in the next few years.
Lambert is overseeing a project right now at Villa Park, made obvious by the clubs signings of Leandro Bacuna, Jores Okore and Nicklas Helenius, who all happen to be under the age of 21. Any success at the club will not come quickly, and it will take patience on Benteke’s part before the squad can churn out wins on a regular basis.
If he chose instead to leave, he could be earning more money, playing in a bigger stadium with more endorsements, European football and guaranteed top flight football every season. He would have secured his future. By staying, that future is now very much in doubt. If Lambert’s project doesn’t work, Benteke could end up stuck playing for a relegation contender for the best years of his career, and what a waste that would be.
Having said that, is it admirable that he has chosen to honour his contract; to stay with the club that showed enough faith in him to spend a reported £7M last summer to bring an unknown player to the EPL? Yes, of course it is.
In a sport fast becoming a mercenary business, where loyalty is now the exception, it is nice to see a player choose to stick with a club rather than bailing out at the first opportunity. Benteke’s words after he signed his contract extension sounded like a breath of fresh air to anyone sick of the ultra-greed spreading through world football:
“I am very happy to be back here in Birmingham and at Aston Villa, and to sign a new contract. This is a great club and it has given me a lot. Now I have to give back to my team-mates and the fans who have always been right behind me.”
This is a far cry from the Benteke of a couple of months ago, who said “If Aston Villa say I must stay, I won’t necessarily accept that.” I don’t know about you, but I prefer the new Benteke.
So despite it arguably being an illogical move from his perspective, Benteke deserves a lot of respect for his change of heart. He has decided to stick it out with his club, even though it could mean that he may end up missing out on European football, the big paycheck or the dream move that he almost deserves this season.
Loyalty is a quality not to be taken lightly, and surprisingly Paul Lambert has somehow managed to persuade Benteke that it was too.
So well done Paul Lambert, and well done Christian Benteke. In some ways it was a missed opportunity and a stupid decision to stay, but it was still the right thing for you to do. Let’s hope for your sake that the project at Villa works quickly, because I for one want to see you playing European football sooner rather than later.