BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Felipe Caicedo will not just shoulder the burden of scoring Ecuador's goals at the World Cup. The barrel-chested striker has also been handed the onerous task of filling the boots, and the No. 11 shirt, of one of the country's favorite footballing sons.
It's nearly a year since Ecuador was plunged into grief following the tragic news that Christian Benitez, the national team's star striker, had died of heart failure, a day after playing for his club side in Qatar. He was 27 and had, according to doctors, a congenital heart ailment that had gone undetected in numerous physical examinations.
Since that day — July 29, 2013 — life in the Ecuador squad has not been the same again.
Benitez's No. 11 jersey was retired by the national federation. Coach Reinaldo Rueda couldn't control his tears at the loss of one of his most popular players — "he's practically irreplaceable," he said. Close friend and international teammate Antonio Valencia was arguably the most affected, tattooing Benitez's face on his upper arm in his honor.
"Why now brother?" was one of Valencia's emotional messages on Twitter. Another read: "This strong pain you've caused me will stay forever my brother, but we love you."
Qualification for the World Cup in Brazil was dedicated to the man affectionately known as "Chucho," and he'll be in the thoughts of Ecuador's players, coaches and fans when the team launches its group-stage campaign against Switzerland on Sunday.
"It is a vacuum that is still very difficult to fill," Rueda said on Saturday, taking his time to compose his words. "He is always in our minds and our hearts, for all that he meant to the group.
"The group has been able to assimilate that mourning. It's a reality ... we have pay tribute to him. He will be with us, he will be present."
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