Inspired Ecuador playing with heavy hearts for fallen Chucho Benitez
He scored goals. He was the team joker. He was in charge of the music in the dressing-room (even though he was a terrible salsa dancer). Every team needs one and has one, the character, the star who shines brightest and brings out the best in the others. The leader off the pitch, encouraging others on it. That's why this World Cup will be so difficult for anyone associated with the Ecuador national team.
Its center forward, Christian "Chucho" Benitez, died of heart failure on July 28, 2013, just after playing his first game for Qatari side El Jaish. Chucho scored four goals in World Cup qualifying, and, with 24 goals in 55 matches, was closing in on Agustin Delgado's all-time scoring record of 31. Ecuador's players lost a friend as well as a teammate, and every goal they have scored since then has been marked with a nod to the heavens.
Some of them, including Manchester United's Antonio Valencia, the team captain, have Chucho's name and dates tattooed on their arms. Coach Reinaldo Rueda called up one man fewer than he needed for the four remaining World Cup qualifiers and one seat remained empty on the team bench on the sideline. The Ecuador football federation swiftly agreed to retire Chucho's No. 11 shirt.
"The players were devastated, and I was worried about they would react without Chucho in the side," Ecuador's FA spokesman Victor Mestanza Aspiazu told SI.com. "I thought morale would drop, but it didn't happen: the players knew how much Chucho wanted to get to the World Cup, so they decided to make his dream come true."
A 1-0 win over Uruguay last October sealed qualification. Ecuador only scored three goals in its last four qualifiers and Rueda said there was no obvious replacement for Chucho.
"There isn't a forward like him out there," he said.
The national press leapt on his words and demanded he stop using the tragedy as an excuse. In a passionate editorial, daily newspaper El Comercio wrote: "Rueda keeps saying that he was the only quality forward. So if Ecuador don't score in the World Cup, the guilty one would be the angel of death, because it was he who took Chucho away from us."
Rueda has moved Enner Valencia from out wide to take Chucho's place alongside Felipe Caicedo up front. The 24-year-old Pachuca forward was the top scorer in the Mexican league this past Clausura season -- something Chucho had done four times before -- and is seen as his natural heir. Valencia has called Chucho his inspiration and claimed "he opened the doors" to a generation of Ecuadoreans now playing abroad.
FIFA ruled last year that the shirt numbers 1-23 must be allocated to all teams and that someone must take the No. 11 shirt in the Ecuador squad.
"I was not really surprised when FIFA said that as their rules are clear and we must obey the rules," said Mestanza Aspiazu with creditable diplomacy. "Is it fair? In my opinion, no, but as I said, the rules are there and we must obey."
It was decided Thursday that Caicedo who will wear the No. 11 shirt in Brazil, a choice that Rueda did not make alone. The players themselves were involved in the decision.
If Ecuador gets out of Group E, in which it plays Switzerland, Honduras and France, it would be one of the stories of the World Cup.
"We are playing for Chucho's memory but also for the dreams of every Ecuadorean around the world," said Mestanza Aspiazu. "We miss Chucho and his happiness, and even when Ecuador plays today, we all have a lump in our throats."
Sports Illustrated's Grant Wahl previews Group E for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and picks his teams and players to watch once play begins.