Today, Monday 29 July, Ecuadorian striker Cristian Benitez passed away due to a cardiorespiratory arrest in Qatar, where he was playing his club football for Al Jaish SC. Benitez, who had racked up nine appearances and four goals in the ongoing qualifying phase for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, was just 27 years of age and was one of Ecuador’s leading players.
Popularly known as Chucho, the gifted frontman only arrived at Al Jaish three weeks ago, fresh from finishing top scorer as his previous club America claimed the honours in Mexico’s Torneo Clausura 2013. Indeed, Benitez’s stock was particularly high on Mexican soil, having also shone in the colours of Santos Laguna and won a total of two domestic titles, four top-scorer awards and two league best player awards during his time in the country.
“Dismayed by the passing of Chucho Benitez. My thoughts go out to his family and to Ecuadorian football,” said FIFA President Joseph S. Blatter via Twitter minutes after hearing what had happened.
The news, which was confirmed by the Ecuadorian Football Association (FEF), has caused deep sadness across the Latin American footballing community. One of the first to make public his grief was Benitez’s international team-mate Antonio Valencia, who posted several messages on his personal Twitter account. “You’ll always be my brother... This pain is so strong, but we love you,” said the Manchester United midfielder.
Colombia star Radamel Falcao, now in France with Monaco, was also quick to use the social networking site to pass on his condolences. “Sad news of the death of the footballer Cristian Benitez. Give strength to his family and all the people of Ecuador. We’ll miss you Chucho,” said El Tigre, who felt the full force of Benitez’s goalscoring gifts first-hand on matchday 5 of Brazil 2014 qualifying, when Chucho grabbed the winner in Ecuador’s 1-0 success over Los Cafeteros.
Goals in the family
Born in Quito on 1 May 1986, Benitez went on to follow in the footsteps of his father Ermen, the Ecuadorian league’s all-time leading scorer. His Ecuadorian top-flight debut came in 2004 with El Nacional, where his father had starred, and wasted little time in making an impact – going on to become a key member of the side that won the Torneo Clausura 2005 and Torneo Nacional 2006, to the extent that he was voted the best player in the latter competition.
Benitez also got a taste of his first FIFA World Cup that year, though his only appearance came in a 3-0 reverse against hosts Germany in Berlin. Aside from that solitary trip to the global showpiece, Chucho also represented Ecuador at two Copa Americas (Venezuela 2007 and Argentina 2011), though on neither occasion could La Tri reach the knockout stages.
In between those continental competitions, the forward made 14 appearances and scored three goals in Ecuador’s unsuccessful attempt to qualify for South Africa 2010.
Benitez’s move to Santos Laguna came about in 2007 and within a year he had helped them to the Torneo Clausura 2008 title, a campaign in which he was voted the league’s best player. His growing reputation tempted Birmingham City to secure his signature in 2009, though his performances in England fell short of expectations and in 2010 he was back with Los Laguneros and topping the scorer’s charts in that year’s Clausura.
Subsequently making the switch to Mexican heavyweights America, Benitez top scored for Las Águilas in the Clausura 2012 and Apertura 2012, while in the latter championship he was again voted the division’s best player. “We are deeply saddened by the tragic passing of one of America’s most recent idols,” said a club statement.
Diego Forlan, Cesar Farias, Javier Hernandez, Pablo Zabaleta and many other prominent members of the Latin American footballing community have all paid their respects via social network sites. However, it was FEF President Luis Chiriboga who perhaps best summed up feelings on this sad day: “First and foremost we have lost a great Ecuadorian, an extraordinary human being and a loving father of four, who was also an extraordinary player”.