Benitez tragedy can galvanise Ecuador

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RIP Christian Benitez

On July 29th, at around midday GMT, news began to filter through about the tragic passing of Christian Benitez.  It was announced later that the Ecuadorian international, better known as Chucho, had died of a heart failure after he was admitted to hospital suffering from severe stomach pains, shortly after making his debut for Qatari club El Jaish.  He was just 27-years-old.

Tributes flooded in from teammates and fans around the world, stunned by the sudden and unexpected nature of Benitez’s untimely death.   Nowhere was the loss was felt harder than back in his native Ecuador where thousands turned out to mourn and pay respect to their idol in the Coliseo Ruminahui sports arena in Quito.  Such is the esteem for 58-cap Benitez that the Ecuadorian FA has since retired the national team number 11 in his honour.

Benitez, the all-time third-highest scorer for the national team, burst onto the scene with El Nacional in 2004 before spending the majority of his playing career in Mexico, enjoying prolific spells first with Santos Laguna and then with Club America, scoring 108 goals in just 186 games.

But he will be best known to English fans for his loan spell with Birmingham City during the 2009-10 season.  A powerful, explosive pocket-rocket of a forward, Chucho may have only scored four goals but that shouldn’t taint his wonderful goal scoring ability. A hugely likable character at all his clubs, Benitez made enough of an impression in his short time at St Andrews that a minutes silence was held in their recent game versus Watford.

Upon returning to Mexico he quickly rediscovered his form in front of goal, finishing top scorer three times, and began to attract attention from Europe’s top clubs once again.  Linked with Tottenham among others, Benitez eventually opted for £10million move to Al Jaish.

A surprise selection for Germany 2006, a teenage Benitez only made one substitutes appearance but, now reaching the height of his powers, everything pointed to a much more prominent role for Chucho at next year’s World Cup.  His four goals in qualification had helped to put La Tri in a great position to qualify for Brazil with just four games remaining.  The dream was right on track.

So what does his death mean for the national team? The loss of their star striker is obviously a huge blow, not just in terms of missing his attacking qualities, but also the effect it will undoubtedly have on the team’s morale.  With a tricky run-in against Colombia and Bolivia away in September followed by Uruguay and Chile in October so much will depend on how the players react in the face of the adversity.  Manager Reinaldo Rueda will hope that it will serve to unite his squad, transforming their sadness into a positive force to ensure that Benitez’s efforts were not in vein.

Chucho & Cabanas

Benitez’s tragedy also possesses some eerie similarities to the shooting of Paraguay striker Salvador Cabañas before the last World Cup.  Thankfully Cabañas – also an ex-America player – recovered and is miraculously even back playing but nevertheless represents another occasion in which tragedy robbed a South American national of a star player before the tournament.

Paraguay, under new Barcelona boss Gerardo Martino, went on to the reach the quarter-finals and were close to dumping champions Spain out had it not been for a missed Cardozo penalty and wrongly ruled out Valdez goal.  Their example should serve as inspiration for their Ecuadorian counterparts.

Though qualification for Brazil looks probable, it is still not assured and Ecuador must not rest on their laurels.  While Quito has been a fortress for them (six wins and a draw from seven), they have struggled on their travels and with three of their four remaining fixtures away from home there is still plenty of work to be done.  Let’s hope they can do it for Chucho.

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