'I was broken as a person' - Baningime

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Beni BaningimeBeni Baningime has helped Hearts to an unbeaten start to their Scottish Premiership campaign
Venue: Ibrox Stadium Date: Saturday, 16 October Time: 15:00 BST
Coverage: Listen on Sportsound and follow live text commentary on the BBC Sport website & app

Beni Baningime is talking about his youth. Given that he's only recently turned 23 those early days are still pretty fresh in his mind, the barefoot football in the sand in Kinshasa, the distant sound of tumult in his home city in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He's asked what would we see if we could turn the clock back to his seven-year-old self. "You'd see joy," he says. "You'd see us in Lemba, our part of the city, and there'd be music and dancing and lots of kids playing football.

"These kids - and I was one of them - would be aware of the dangers not far away. Fighting, civil unrest, political stuff. Not the sound of gunshots exactly, but the noise of rioting. We could hear that and it wasn't nice. It was by the grace of God that it didn't come too close to where we were, but even as youngsters we knew it was out there."

Kinshasa, one of the largest cities in Africa, can be a very dangerous place. Baningime left when he was eight, but it's still in him. Its music, its dance, its food, its language. He still has family there. "I have cousins and in our culture your cousins are like your brothers, so it's still important to me even though I haven't lived there for a long time."

To say that Baningime has made an impact in his nine games with Hearts would be a gross understatement. From his debut - a 2-1 win over Celtic - he's looked a fine footballer, a guy who "likes to keep the midfield ticking" as he puts it.

His accuracy with the ball and tenacity without it have shone through. Forever smiling, he's lit up Tynecastle. On Saturday, he has a trip to Ibrox. Fifty thousand people in the home of the champions? "It won't faze me," he says. "It's a challenge I'm looking forward to."

Overcoming confidence issues

He's not just a terrific player, he's a person with an interesting story. His dad, a doctor, moved to England and brought the rest of the family over when Baningime was eight. His mum is a nurse. They settled in Wigan and Everton spotted him. Raw, but obviously talented. A player, but one with certain hang-ups.

"Oh, I had big confidence issues. I was bad. Really bad. I remember David Unsworth [the former Everton caretaker manager] saying to me on my debut [against Chelsea in the EFL Cup in October 2017], 'Are you ready?' and I wanted to say no, but I said yes. If David said, 'You don't have to play', I wouldn't have played. I was doing OK on the pitch but in my head I was thinking, 'What am I doing here?' I have a lot more confidence now. It's a thing I had to get over."

Under Unsworth and then big Sam Allardyce, Baningime was given game-time. He was 19 and getting on the field against Chelsea and Leicester, Lyon and Atalanta, West Ham and West Brom, Man City and Liverpool. Minutes rubbing shoulders with Kevin de Bruyne and David Silva. More minutes in the Merseyside derby. He was flying. Many people around the club said 2018-19 could be a major season for him, but it was anything but. Marco Silva was appointed manager and Baningime went on loan to Wigan, where he played one game in an injury-hit spell.

He returned to Everton for 2019-20 and didn't feature. In 2020-21 he was farmed out to Derby and played twice. "A hard three years, but it didn't bother me. People think I'm lying when I say that, but I'm not. I had joy in those three years. Only people who know me will understand.

"The bible says, 'You will keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on you'. The whole time I had peace. That's why you can't put your joy in football because injuries and rejection can happen and I had to learn it the hard way, I had to learn that God is the only one who is going to stick by you when the whole of football had forgotten who you were.

"My agent would say, 'There's no one in for you'. I thought, 'I'm a decent player, I'm not that bad'. Last window, who was in for me? Hearts and maybe one more. Everybody else was like, 'We don't want him'. That's the reality. Now my agent is saying people are starting to see you again and I'm like, 'Why didn't they give me a chance before? That's why I am so thankful to Hearts and what the club has done for me."

'God is everything to me'

Before he found faith he was a normal kid doing things that kids do when they have a few quid. It wasn't that he was wild. He wasn't zipping around in flash cars and splashing his money on high-living. He was out and about, but he wasn't happy. He was searching for something - and he was never going to find it in a nightclub.

"I experienced God and I don't know if you believe in God or if you don't, but for me, God is bigger than football. He's bigger than life. He is everything to me. I just didn't like the way I was living. I was broken as a person until a few years ago really. I didn't have my identity. I'm talking about girls and all these different things that people tell you to do. It wasn't me.

"I was looking for something more. I found true happiness in God. You go to a nightclub and look around and I was like, 'What am I doing here?' I'm not judging anybody who enjoys that life, but it wasn't the life I wanted.

"So I'm always reading my bible. I feel God is always with me and guiding me on the right path. I come into training and I pray, before I play a game I pray. You might have seen me."

Beni BaningimeBeni Baningime is thriving under Robbie Neilson's management at Hearts

'I'm very grateful for this chance'

Baningime has a serenity that's impossible to miss and a delivery that can be arresting. Mercifully, he has not experienced racism in the game but should that poison descend upon him at any time he thinks he knows he'll deal with it.

"The way I would handle it is the way Jesus would have handled it - love the person and hopefully they can change. 'I'm not your enemy, I don't know who has polluted your mind but I am not your enemy'. Some black people I know, because they have seen such oppression, they say, 'I don't like white people'. They've gone hard and they want me to have that same mentality. I say, 'No, I try to love everyone'".

He wants to win football matches and believes he's capable of "achieving great things in this game" and the calmness of his mind is part of that. "When I'm on the pitch I'm in a war, but when it's over, football is not everything to me. If it was everything in my life then it wouldn't work."

He says he's never lost that simple pleasure he had when kicking a ball with his mates in Kinshasa. Some of those lads didn't have much, but they had each other and a shared love of the game. "We had innocence and it was great.

"Some of them were as good as me and some were better, but I'm the one who has this chance and I'm very grateful for it. The next challenge is against Rangers and we need to believe in ourselves. I think we can do something special at Hearts.

"At the end of my career, I want to sit down and say to myself, 'Beni, you put everything into that. You couldn't have tried any harder'. I'll have peace of mind, no matter what happens."

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