The sad death of ‘Chucho’ Benitez within hours of his debut for his new club in Qatar was not connected in any way with the heat. The 27-year-old’s bereft widow has told her family precisely that. Anyone with an alternative agenda or sensationalist tendencies should beware joining those particular dots.
Instead Christian Rogelio Benitez Betancourt died of a cardiac arrest after being taken to hospital with stomach pain diagnosed, too late, as peritonitic. He had played only a few minutes earlier for El Jaish, as a substitute.
Benitez’s death rocked football in Ecuador where he had emulated the achievements of his father Ermen who had himself been one of the country’s all-time leading scorers. The striker’s 24 goals in 58 appearances rank him third among Ecuador’s all-time marksmen.
Born in Pichincha near Quito on May 1, 1986, Benitez made his name as a teenager with El Nacional with whom he was twice a champion as well as league top scorer in 2006.
That same year he also starred in the Copa Libertadores and was among the youngest players to appear at the World Cup finals in Germany.
Spain’s Barcelona and Manchester United were both supposed to have run the rule over him but his first foreign move was closer to home, to Mexico’s Santos Laguna.
In 2007 he was hailed as Ecuador’s top football export and turned down an offer from Portugal’s Benfica; the next year he scored 10 goals in Santos’ Clausura success and was hailed back home as Footballer of the Year.
In July 2009 Benitez, now 23, agreed to quit Santos Laguna and try his luck in England with Birmingham City. A year-long loan was agreed with the Premier League club having an option of an £8m purchase at its end. The Mexicans dropped their initial £10m valuation after a medical showed up an old knee injury.
Benitez was thrilled, saying: “Now is the right time for me to make this move. I will be giving everything to score as many goals as possible and share good times with this club.”
Manager Alex McLeish had no worries over the work permit since Ecuador were riding high in the FIFA rankings and Benitez had played in 86pc of their competitive games over the previous two years.
The Scot hailed his “exciting” acquisition as “a tremendous prospect who has lit up the South American international scene.”
But a year later the excitement had drained away and Benitez was despatched back to Mexico. It had taken Benitez three months to score his first goal – a header in a 2-2 draw with Liverpool – and he managed only three more in 36 appearances in all competitions.
Back in Mexico with Santos Laguna, Benitez scored 14 goals in their Apertura success then moved to America. They paid a domestic record $12m but were repaid with 52 goals in 58 games which helped earned both club and player further title success.
Tottenham and Swansea both showed a renewed interest from the Premier League but so did another, mystery, club.
That club turned out to be El Jaish. Three weeks ago Benitez and wife Lizeth headed for the Gulf and a country in the international football focus ever since FIFA’s surprise award of the 2022 World Cup hosting.
On Sunday he made his substitute’s debut in the closing minutes of a 2-0 win over Qatar SC in the first round of the Sheikh Jassim Cup, a warm-for the new league season.
Back home that evening Benitez complained to Lizeth of violent stomach pains. He was taken to hospital where he fell into a coma, suffered a cardiac arrest and could not be resuscitated. Subsequently a distressed Lizeth told her family back in Ecuador that the cardiac arrest had been provoked, she was told, by peritonitis.
Lizeth’s father Cleber Chala, himself an ex-international, later left a message on Twitter saying that “a great has left us. You will live in our hearts forever Chucho.” But, following his conversation with Lizeth, he also told local media: “He didn’t receive the appropriate treatment soon enough.”
Ricardo Pelaez, America’s sports director, said Benitez had never been suspected of a heart problem. Pelaez added: “He was very fit and healthy, always very happy, very competitive. He was a winner. Everyone can say only good things about him.”
Tributes poured in from Ecuador, Mexico and England as well as from FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Birmingham will mark the player’s death ahead of Saturday’s Championship [second division] home match against Watford at St Andrew’s.
The club said: “The thoughts of all associated with the club are with Chucho’s family and friends at this very sad time. [He] was an immensely popular character during his time at the club.”