Reinaldo Rueda is not sleeping well these days, and it is easy to see why. A few weeks back, in the space of four days, the Ecuador coach lost both his father and his star player, Cristian Benitez. Since then sleep has come fitfully to him, and even when he has managed to drift off, he often finds himself wide awake shortly after. The pattern can repeat itself two or three times a night. However, regardless of how little Rueda sleeps, he needs to face the day with bundles of energy. He is, after all, the man tasked with fulfilling an entire country’s dream of qualifying for the FIFA World Cup™ for the third time.
“These last three or four weeks have been very tough and intense, as well as extremely painful. I don’t know if over time it will be different. Dealing with the grief has been difficult, but you just have to keep going,” said Rueda in an exclusive chat with FIFA.com. On 25 July while the coach was in Turkey, his father Blas passed away, and he was unable to make it home in time for the funeral. Then on the 29th, the footballing world was shocked and saddened when Ecuador’s star player, Cristian Chucho Benitez, died suddenly after a cardio-respiratory arrest.
During our conversation, the 56-year-old Colombian, who is also a university lecturer in Physical Education, can change his tone from anxious to joyful with remarkable ease. “We’re nostalgic people and prone to depression. It’s the influence of the Pacific Ocean. We experience the bad moments in life with great intensity, but we also overcome them in the same way,” he said.
As far as the race for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ goes, Rueda knows there is very little margin for error. With four games remaining, Ecuador lie third in the South American qualifying table, on the same number of points as fourth-placed Chile and five clear of Uruguay and Venezuela. Four countries will qualify directly for Brazil 2014 and a fifth will contest a play-off. Up next is September’s double header, involving trips to Colombia, two points above them in second, and then La Paz. Suffice to say that Rueda and his charges are feeling the strain.
Though puzzled by the close proximity of the recent sad events, Rueda finds refuge in the thought that it is simply the way life is. He prays a great deal for inner peace, to be able to accept what has happened, and exercises whenever he can. “I believe it’s the way to cleanse oneself and move forward.” He could probably have added that it can help him have a clear mind with which to raise the spirits of players that need to be at the top of their game. “We need to release that whole emotional side, all those feelings we have. It has been a huge blow for everyone, and each of us has to work on overcoming this experience in a different way. We have regular individual and group discussions in this regard.”
A difficult trip
Colombia, his next destination during the South American qualifiers, means a great deal to Rueda. As well as being his homeland and where his family and many friends live, it is also a country in which he is highly regarded. Having coached its national teams in every category, he was responsible for, among other things, the creation of an Under-14 tournament that gave rise to several current stars of Cafetero football, like Radamel Falcao and Fredy Guarin.
On 6 September, Rueda will be in Barranquilla for the first time as a visiting international coach for a crucial game. “My feelings are difficult [to reconcile]. It will be a conflict from an emotional point of view, even from a family one. My children can’t accept that their little cousins will be cheering on Colombia, while they are rooting for Ecuador. That’s the kind of thing this job demands of you, and we need to be honest about it. However, we’re playing for ourselves and our qualification,” he explained.
A void to fill
Given that Ecuador’s final two qualifying opponents will be direct rivals Uruguay and Chile, Rueda is only too aware that what happens in Colombia “will be hugely significant both in terms of morale and the result. We’re in the final straight and are facing teams very much on the up, like Chile and Uruguay," he continued. "We need to show intelligence and maturity in dealing with the [Colombia] result, whatever that may be, because, as always, certain things will only be settled on the final matchday. A single point, perhaps even a goal, could make the difference, so maturity will decide it.”
As the coach prepares for this sprint finish, he has the twin challenges of healing the wounds of his charges and finding a replacement for Benitez, who he described as “a very special forward because of his flexibility, superb strength, explosiveness and great ability in the air”.
Asked if he would have to change the way his side attacks, Rueda replied: “How the games unfold and what we manage to achieve will dictate if we change a great deal or not. We’ll greatly miss such a complete player and also what he meant to us off the pitch, in terms of his harmony, happiness and ability to mediate in disputes. He’s left a massive void to fill.”
With or without sleep, Rueda’s ability to somehow fill that void could decide whether his Tricolor side grace football’s flagship event next year in Brazil.