Rueda was badly affected like his players by the death of 27-year-old Benitez.
QUITO (AFP) – The challenge faced by Ecuador coach Reinaldo Rueda to devise tactics for the World Cup has been accentuated by grief over the death of star striker Christian Benitez.
The 57-year-old Colombian was badly affected like his players by the death of 27-year-old Benitez, who collapsed on the pitch playing for Qatari club El Jaish last July.
However, Rueda — whom Ecuador president Rafael Correa dubbed ‘one more Ecuadorean’ for guiding them to only their third World Cup finals — knows they have to put that to the back of their minds as they go into matches against Group E rivals France, Switzerland and Honduras.
“Benitez’s death was a huge blow to the group,” Rueda told the BBC.
Rueda decided the best way to start the healing process was to appoint Manchester United wing Antonio Valencia, their highest profile player and Benitez’s closest friend, as captain, replacing dependable defender Walter Ayovi.
It was a bold gamble given Valencia’s form suffered in the slump endured by United this season and the sense of loss he felt at Benitez’s death.
“Antonio Valencia was closest to Benitez – they were like twins – and so making him the captain was a way of rallying the group,” Rueda told the BBC.
“Valencia was reluctant initially, out of respect for Ayovi, but it ended up being, from a psychological point of view, a change that gave us a boost in the final straight.”
Rueda, who had a modest playing career, must also improve on his side’s dreadful record on their travels.
Despite this Rueda, who has a university degree in Physical Education and has worked as a lecturer, believes there is no reason why they should not emulate the 2006 side, of which Valencia is one of only two players to remain, and reach the knockout stages.
However, those who believe the second group game against Honduras represents their best chance of victory and a launch pad to securing one of the top two group spots do not include Rueda.
“Having helped rebuild the infrastructure in Honduran football (he left after the 2010 World Cup but his work could be seen two years later as they reached the Olympic quarter-finals) I know they are going to be tough opponents,” said Rueda, whose side drew 2-2 with Honduras last November in a friendly that ended up with both sides reduced to 10 men.
Rueda may have wept openly when he heard of Benitez’s death but he also possesses a steely side as he showed when after a stern half-time talk and making several substitutions his side recovered from a 3-0 deficit to beat Australia 4-3 in London last March.
“This leaves us with a good lesson, we can’t go into matches the way we did, we were very passive. We lacked fight to win back the ball,” he said after the game.
“It is important that we should always remember this day which gives us important information for (dealing with) adverse situations.”