Benitez left big boots to fill in Ecuador
This time last year, Ecuador striker Christian Benitez must have been looking forward to starring in Brazil in the tournament that promised to be the highlight of his international career. Instead, in July, at the age of 27, Benitez fell ill and suddenly died.
His loss was a huge blow to the Ecuador team, in technical, tactical and emotional terms. Coach Reinaldo Rueda decided that the best way to react was to change the team's captain, the armband passing from left-back Walter Ayovi to Manchester United winger Antonio Valencia.
"It was hard on Walter Ayovi, who is 500 percent excellent," Rueda told me in February. "But Antonio Valencia was closest to Benitez -- they were like twins -- and so making him the captain was a way of rallying the group. Valencia was reluctant initially, out of respect for Ayovi, but it ended up being, from a psychological point of view, a change that gave us a boost in the final straight of the qualification campaign."
Valencia and Benitez grew up together in the youth ranks of the El Nacional club in Quito. Giving the captaincy to his close friend was a means of ensuring that Benitez was in some spiritual way still part of the squad, even though his No. 11 shirt had been retired by the Ecuadorian FA.
FIFA did not allow them to continue this practice in the World Cup, and so the shirt has passed on to centre-forward Felipe Caicedo, his old strike partner. Someone else can wear his number, but no other Ecuadorian player can offer the same qualities.
"Benitez was irreplaceable," Rueda said in February, "for his goal-scoring capacity and his versatility. We've looked at options, such as Enner Valencia as a second striker, or Edison Mendez to shore up the midfield. These are players with different characteristics and the final choice will depend on the circumstances of the game and the opposition."
As it has turned out, the fine club form in Mexico of Enner Valencia ensured that he has been given the nod -- and he has carried that form into the national team. He has scored in his past five games for his country, including the header that put Ecuador into the lead against Switzerland in Brasilia last Sunday. But Rueda's fear that his inclusion might leave the team too open was perhaps borne out by Switzerland's stoppage-time winner.
As the Europeans wilted in the second-half heat, Ecuador looked the more likely winners -- in the match likely to decide who accompanies France through to the second round. The chance to snatch the three points came right at the end. Otherwise disappointing, Antonio Valencia made a burst down the right and squared for substitute Michael Arroyo, who in the final warm-up match had crashed home an equaliser against England. This time, though, he dwelt on the ball and was tackled -- and with Ecuador overcommitted to attack, Switzerland broke straight up the other end of the field to snatch a win with virtually the last kick of the game.
It leaves Ecuador with a tough task ahead of them if they are to reach the second round. They must beat Honduras in Curitiba -- and then probably also will need to beat France in Rio next Wednesday. The first, they trust, is well within their capabilities. The second is a big ask -- but as Ecuador showed in flashes against the Swiss, they are a team with virtues. They break down the flanks with pace, skill and purpose -- and they can count on the spirit of Christian Benitez to cheer them along the way.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC.