By Simon Wright
Ecuador’s 2-1 victory in the 2014 World Cup over Honduras in Curitiba was a poignant one. Not only did it give the South American side a chance of progressing into the knockout rounds of football’s greatest showpiece for only the second time in their history, it was done for one of their teammates, who was cruelly taken away less than a year before.
Christian Benitez, more commonly known as ‘Chucho’ to his close friends and colleagues was Ecuador’s star striker. Injury aside, Benitez was more than likely to lead the Ecuadorian forward line at the 2014 World Cup had it not been for a vicious turn of fate.
His sudden death from a cardiac arrest after his debut in Qatar in July 2013 was a huge shock. A hard grafter, Benitez was a proven goalscorer and so much so, English clubs were scouting him at the time of his untimely passing.
He created a goal scoring reputation in his early days in his native country, playing for El Nacional. Benitez won two national championships and scored 29 goals in 84 games across three seasons. Considering he broke into their first team at just 18 years of age, his talent was there for all to see.
Top Spanish club Villarreal took an interest in acquiring the tall, uncompromising striker but Benitez moved to Mexico to continue his development, playing for Santos Laguna. In 2007, he received an award for being the best Ecuadorian footballer to play outside his homeland. With personal and team accolades arriving frequently, Benitez was a hot property, impressing the Birmingham City manager Alex McLeish.
He joined the Blues for the 2009-10 campaign on a loan deal, after a knee injury saw an earlier permanent move collapse. It was to be a tough season though in the Barclays Premier League for ‘Chucho.’ Whilst Birmingham impressed on their top flight return, achieving an excellent 9th placed finish, the player’s form was inconsistent. He found the net only three times in the league, although his double did help Birmingham to knock Everton out of the FA Cup at Goodison Park in the Fourth Round. Birmingham were impressed, but elected not to take up an option in his loan after failing to negotiate successfully for a lower transfer fee with his parent club. A return to Santos Laguna beckoned.
After a strong 2010-11 season where he found the target 16 times, Benitez became a record breaker in Mexico, smashing the country’s transfer record when he moved for $10m from Santos Laguna to Club America. He scored on his debut and netted another 14 goals in 2011-12 to be the league’s joint top goalscorer.
His goalscoring record with Club America was phenomenal, netting 52 times in 79 games. Both Tottenham Hotspur and Swansea City were known to be monitoring his progress very carefully, so it was a slight surprise that ‘Chucho’ elected to move to the Middle East, signing for Qatari side El Jaish in 2013.
On 28 July, 2013, he made his debut in the Sheikh Jassim Cup against Qatar SC as a second half substitute. It was just a normal cup match which his new club won 2-0. Sadly though, it would be the last game of Christian Benitez’s professional career.
A day later, he went into the Ahli Hospital in Doha, complaining of a strong pain in his abdomen. What happened next is unclear but it is believed medical attention to ‘Chucho’ was slow and passive. He suffered respiratory failure and the complications led to a cardiac arrest and sudden death. El Jaish officials said that no complaints were made by the player of any heart problems. His official diagnosis was he developed peritonitis and died of cardiorespiratory arrest. He was just 27 years old.
In a statement, his new club said:
The club would like to offer its sincere condolences to the family of the player. His sudden departure is a big shock for each member of the technical and administrative staff. He was a player that over the short period he was here was regarded for his high moral character.
According to doctors, a congenital heart alignment had gone undetected during numerous medicals and physical examinations.
Birmingham City held a minute’s silence in his honour before their opening Championship game of the season. Meanwhile in Benitez’s homeland, his body was flown home with fans flocking the streets in the capital, Quito, to bid farewell to one their country’s heroes. The national skipper Antonio Valencia was at the service alongside ‘Chucho’s’ family and his devastated wife.
He was Ecuador’s third highest goalscorer, scoring 24 times, only behind Eduardo Hurtado (26) and Agustin Delgado (31). It was very likely he would have broken this record had he lived.
He wore his national colours with pride. Part of the talented Ecuador squad in 2006 that were knocked out by England in Stuttgart, he made a substitute appearance in the 3-0 defeat by hosts Germany in Berlin, fulfilling one of his childhood ambitions.
Ecuador didn’t qualify for the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but ‘Chucho’s’ goals were valuable to their 2014 campaign. He scored four goals, including a winner against highly fancied Colombia as Ecuador soared towards Brazil. After his passing, the country’s football team rallied together but did struggle without him, only edging out Uruguay for the fourth automatic qualifying spot in South America on goal difference.
Following his death, the Ecuadorian Football Federation retired his no.11 jersey from the national team. It doesn’t come as great surprise that FIFA ignored this gesture and insisted that their rules have to be followed for use of squad numbers 1-23. It is great sadness that FIFA didn’t recognise or understand a country’s national pain.
Ecuador’s hidden pain was one of the more poignant and emotional sub-plots of the 2014 World Cup. This is for one man who should have been with them in person but always will be in spirit, Christian Benitez.