The sudden death of Ecuador striker Christian Benitez at age 27 has shocked the football world, with several players taking to Twitter to express their sympathies to his family. Benitez, best known for his time in England with Birmingham City where he spent a year on loan, died of heart failure last Monday, only a day after playing his first game for his new club, Al Jaish. The Qatar club is still trying to come to terms with his death, only weeks after the player joined the club in a $10million move. He only played twenty minutes for the club but didn’t complain about feeling unwell at any stage nor showed signs of fatigue. In fact, the player was thought to have been in pristine condition when he signed and passed the medical that the club gave him. Whether part of that medical included an examination of his heart has not been determined but few will blame the club for his untimely death.
Benetiz, or Chuco as he was better known, spent most of his career in Latin America playing for Club Deportivo El Nacional in his homeland as well as two spells in Mexico with Santos Laguna and América before moving to Qatar this July. But it will be his spell in England with Birmingham that will trigger the most memories for fans of European football. Brought in at the start of the 2009-2010 season by Alex McLeish, Benetiz realized a dream by playing in one of Europe’s top leagues after many years of rumours and speculation linking him with clubs like Villarreal and Benfica. The transfer itself was not as straightforward as the player had hoped for with both Birmingham and El Nacional debating after the fact the true value of the deal. Originally Birmingham announced that they had signed Benetiz for a then record transfer of £6 million rising to £9m depending on appearances and goals. However when the striker failed a medical due to a knee problem, the deal was frantically renegotiated to cover Birmingham from future losses. McLeish will remember all too well his time in Scotland as then manager of Motherwell when he watch Rangers splash £4 million on Chilean striker Sebastian Rozental only for the player to pick up a underlying knee injury early on and become an expensive flop for the club. So Birmingham ended up taking Benetiz on loan for a season with the option to buy him outright if he played the season without any real medical concerns.
Benetiz finally made his debut for the Blues as a substitute on the opening day against Manchester United and came very close to scoring, only to be denied by a flying Ben Foster. He would have to wait for his full debut which eventually came against Hull in mid September and once again the goalkeeper, Boaz Myhill was on hand to deny the player his first goal for the club. A series of wonderful saves stopped Benetiz from potentially picking up a hat trick and the frustration from that day went with him as the striker failed to score in the next few matches. It was against Liverpool in early November that the Ecuadorian finally broke his deadlock with a fine close range header that beat Pepe Reina at his near post. He would have to wait for his next goal but it eventually came in the fourth round of the FA Cup on a cold Saturday in January against Everton. Benetiz struck early on as Birmingham beat Everton 2-1, with Scottish captain Barry Ferguson grabbing the winner with a wonderful long range strike. Birmingham went on that season to reach the sixth round before being knocked out by eventual finalists Portsmouth. Unfortunately for Benetiz, despite playing well in a majority of the games, he only managed to score two more goals before the end of the season, putting his future in doubt. Birmingham did want to take the option to buy him but after lengthy discussions broke down, the player returned to Mexico to play for Santos Laguna.
In his first season back he finish top goalscorer with 16 goals, which persuaded rivals America to part with a record $10 million for his services. Over the next 79 games he would score 52 times for the club, before leaving to join Al Jaish this summer. Benetiz played over 58 times for his country and holds the distinction of being the countries third greatest goal scorer of all time. His fellow countryman, Manchester United’s Antonio Valencia lead the way last week with a loving tribute to his his former teammate on twitter:
“You will always be my brother, we are experiencing terrible pain, but we love you”
Former Birmingham teammate Craig Gardener spoke about the pleasure that it was to play with “Chuco” whilst the club itself talked about losing a great player and their plans to honour him at St. Andrew’s ahead of the fixture against Watford. His death, at such a young age and without any warning has shocked and saddened all that knew him as a player and as a friend. His body was flown back from Doha airport to his native Ecuador last Thursday with the funeral taking place the next day with thousands lining the streets to pay their respects. May you rest in peace Chuco.