Beni Baningime: Hearts midfielder on his childhood, finding faith and thriving in Scottish football

Hearts have a unbeaten start in their Scottish Premiership campaign thanks to Beni Baningime
Scottish Premiership: Rangers against Hearts Venue at Ibrox Stadium Date and Time: Saturday, 16 Oct Time: 15:00 BST. Coverage: Listen to Sportsound or follow the live text commentary on BBC Sport's website & app

Beni Baningime speaks about his youth. He's just 23 years old, so his early days are still fresh in his memory. The barefoot football in Kinshasa and the distant sound of turmoil in his hometown in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

He asked him what he would see if he could go back to seven years old. He says, "You'd find joy." "You would see us in Lemba. There'd be music, dancing, and lots of children playing football.

"These children - and I was one among them - would know of the dangers that were not far away. Fighting, civil unrest and political stuff. The sound of gunshots is not the same as the sound of rioting. It was loud and unpleasant. It wasn't too far from us, but we all knew it existed even as children.

Kinshasa is one of the most dangerous cities in Africa. Baningime fled when he was eight years old, but the spirit of it is still with him. Its music, dance, and language. There are still family members there. "I have cousins, and in our culture, your cousins are like you brothers. So it's still important for me even though I haven’t lived there for a while."

It would be an understatement to say that Baningime made an impact on his nine games with Hearts. His debut, which was a 2-1 victory over Celtic, has shown that he is a good footballer and a man who "likes the midfield ticking".

His precision with the ball and his tenacity when it is not have shined through. He's always smiling and has lit up Tynecastle. He's going to Ibrox on Saturday. Fivety thousand people at the home of the champions. He says, "It won’t faze us." "It's an exciting challenge that I look forward to."

How to overcome confidence issues

He is not only a great player but also a fascinating person. When Baningime was eight years old, his dad, a physician, moved to England with the rest of his family. His mother is a nurse. He was spotted by Everton and Wigan. It was raw, but clearly talented. A player with some issues.

"Oh, my confidence was low. I was terrible. I was terrible. David Unsworth, former Everton caretaker manager, said to me when I made my debut against Chelsea in the EFL Cup in Oct 2017. He asked me if I was ready. I wanted to answer no, but I answered yes. David would have said that you don't need to play, and I wouldn't. While I was performing well on the pitch, I was wondering what I was doing. I feel a lot more confident now. It was something I had to overcome."

Baningime received game time under Sam Allardyce and then Unsworth. He was just 19 when he took to the field against Chelsea, Leicester, Lyon, Atalanta West Ham and West Brom as well as Manchester City and Liverpool. Minutes spent rubbing shoulders and laughing with David Silva and Kevin de Bruyne. Merseyside derby - More minutes. He was flying. He was flying. Many in the club thought 2018-19 would be a big season. Marco Silva was named manager, and Baningime was loaned to Wigan where he played in an injury-hit spell.

For 2019-20, he returned to Everton but didn't play. He was farmed to Derby in 2020-21 and played two times. It was a difficult three years but I didn't mind. Although people think I am lying when I say this, I don't lie. Those three years were full of joy. Only those who know me can understand.

"The Bible says that whoever keeps his mind on you will keep him in perfect peace." Peace was my constant companion all the time. Because of the possibility of injuries and rejection, you shouldn't let your joy go to football. I learned this lesson the hard way. When the entire football world forgot who you are, I learned that God was the only one who will stand by you.

My agent would tell me, "There's no one in for you." I thought, "I'm a decent player. I'm not that terrible." Who was there for me last window? Hearts and possibly one more. Everyone else was like, "We don't want to him". This is the truth. My agent says people are beginning to see you again, and I'm like "Why didn't they offer me a chance before?" "That's why Hearts has been so helpful to me and I am grateful for all they have done for us."

"God is all to me"

Before he had faith, he was just a regular kid who did the same things as kids with a few dollars. He wasn't wild. He wasn't cruising around in flashy cars or spending his money on extravagant living. Although he was out and about, he wasn’t content. He was looking for something, and he wasn't going to find it at a nightclub.

"I felt God. I don't know whether you believe in God, or not, but God is more than football to me. He is bigger than all of life. He is everything to my heart. I didn't like how I was living. I was a broken person up until a few decades ago. My identity was not mine. This is what I mean by girls and all the different things people tell you to do. It wasn't me.

"I was searching for more. God gave me true happiness. It was easy to go to a club and wonder what you are doing. While I don't judge anyone who lives that lifestyle, it was not the life I desired.

"So I always read my Bible. God is always there for me, guiding me along the right path. Before I go to training, I pray. You may have seen me.

Under Robbie Neilson's Hearts Management, Beni Baningime thrives

"I'm very grateful to have this opportunity"

Baningime is a rare combination of a calm and powerful delivery. He has never experienced racism in the game, but should it happen to him, he believes he can handle it.

"The way that I would handle it would be the same as Jesus would - love the person, and hope they can change. "I am not your enemy. I don't know what has polluted you mind, but I am not your adversary." Because they've seen so much oppression, some black people I know say that they don't like white people. They have been through a lot and want me to be the same. "No, I try and love everyone," I reply.

He is determined to win football matches. The calmness in his mind and belief that he can achieve great things in the game are part of what he believes. "When I'm on the pitch, I feel like I'm fighting a war. But, when it's over, I realize that football isn't everything to me. It wouldn't work if it were all of my life.

He said that he has never lost the simple joy of kicking a football with his Kinshasa mates. Although some of those boys didn't have much, they shared a love for the game and had one another. "We had innocence, and it was wonderful.

"Some were just as good as me, some were even better than me, but I am the one who has this opportunity and I'm grateful for it. We must believe in ourselves and face the Rangers challenge. We can do something special at Hearts.

"At the conclusion of my career, it is my goal to say to myself: "Beni, that was a lot of work. It was impossible to have done it any better. No matter what happens, I will have peace of mind."

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