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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."
Ecuador's No. 11 shirt has had to be reinstated for the World Cup because of FIFA regulations, and it has been given to Caicedo — Rueda's first-choice striker who finished as the team's top scorer in South American qualifying.
Benitez is a hard act to follow, not just for his personality and importance to the team. He was also a vital component of Rueda's lineup because of his pace, versatility and work rate as well as his scoring prowess, netting 24 goals in 58 international appearances.
He had scored four goals in World Cup qualifying before he died.
"We have a huge responsibility for him and his family to have a wonderful participation in this World Cup," Ecuador defender Fricson Erazo said Saturday through a translator.
"Christian is very much in our minds and our hearts and that has made us stronger. We are always calling each other, following how each of us is doing ... It was a life experience — now we have to transmit the camaraderie and brotherhood and take this in our stride."
Expect Ecuador to pay plenty of tributes to Benitez throughout the World Cup, especially if the team qualifies for the second round.
Rueda made a bold declaration before the tournament, saying: "I want to play seven games. That is what I want at the World Cup."
That means reaching the semifinals. Now that really would be a tribute to Benitez.
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