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The legacy of Christian Benitez

Christian Benitez passed away last July, but his spirit is still felt within Ecuador's World Cup team.
Christian Benitez passed away last July, but his spirit is still felt within Ecuador's World Cup team.

Oswaldo Minda arrived at the Vila Ventura hotel in Viamão, Brazil, on Tuesday to officially complete Ecuador's 23-man World Cup squad, yet, within the Ecuadorian ranks, there is a feeling that the squad will never be fully complete. Their World Cup place was sealed just a few months after the sudden death of their teammate and friend, Christian 'Chucho' Benítez, whose presence is still badly missed.

Just 27 at the time of his death from cardiac arrest last July, Benítez was central to Ecuador's qualification campaign. He scored in the home victories over Colombia, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela and provided, with his energy and instinctive touches, a valuable link between midfield and attack. Off the pitch, he was a hugely popular figure within the tight-knit national team squad, and also with the Ecuadorian public.

The affection in which he was held was made evident by the turnout for his funeral. More than 100,000 people passed through the doors of the Coliseo Rumiñahui in Quito, Ecuador, to pay their last respects. Their number included several coaches and teammates, new and old. Others gathered outside the venue for a candlelight memorial. Friends and family later said goodbye at an intimate service at the Monte Olivo cemetery on the city's outskirts.

"Farewell eternal goal scorer," Ecuador president Rafael Correa said as part of a brief speech at the Coliseo. "You will live forever in the loving memory of our people."

No player was as close to Benítez as Antonio Valencia. The pair came up together through the youth ranks of El Nacional --- the team of Benítez's father, Ermen, and now of his son, Fabiano, who is currently enrolled with the club's under-12 side --- starred in unison at the 2006 World Cup and established themselves as national team regulars thereafter. They were "like twins," according to coach Reinaldo Rueda.

Valencia flew to Ecuador for the funeral and shortly afterward had the face of Benítez tattooed onto the upper part of his left arm. In the weeks that followed, a number of his international colleagues celebrated the next goal they scored by pointing to the sky in tribute to their deceased teammate. Jefferson Montero fell to the ground in tears after scoring for Morelia against Tigres.

The mourning process was difficult. National team psychologist Orlando Caicedo worked closely with the players to help them come to terms with their loss. Many sought solace in their faith. Valencia was named captain in a bid to unite the group and push it over the line to qualification.

La Tri's place in Brazil was sealed by a 1-0 victory at home to Uruguay in October. Upon the final whistle, Valencia took off his shirt to reveal another bearing the name, number and image of Benítez. Juan Carlos Paredes and Walter Ayoví made a point of dedicating the achievement to their departed colleague. A few days later, chants of "Chucho, Chucho" rang out during the squad's triumphal parade through the streets of Quito.

Ecuador are determined to again do the legacy of Benítez proud this summer. Ermen has travelled with the squad to Brazil to lend his support, and they are also anticipating a helping hand from above. "We hope that he'll be there with us in every match," midfielder Christian Noboa told earlier this year. "We know he's looking out for us."