Tom Marshall: An Ecuadorian that Mexico adopted as its own

The Ecuadorian star overcame a difficult childhood to become one of the best and most respected players in Mexico.
It’s difficult to overstate the impact Ecuadorian striker Christian “Chucho” Benitez had on the Mexican game. Few foreigners have enjoyed such success and his sudden and tragic passing at just 27 years old in Qatar on Monday has been marked up and down the country.

America and Santos Laguna both held masses. The one in Mexico City saw tearful fans in shock, and players and directors struggling to come to terms with the fact that just one month ago, Benitez was the main figure in firing America to its record-equaling eleventh title.

Outside Santos Laguna’s stadium in Torreon, a statue of Benitez is already in the works.

America’s bitter rival Chivas was quick in sending out a message in support of the player’s family and even Mexico president Enrique Pena Nieto sent out a Tweet with his condolences to Benitez’s family.

Benitez was an infectious personality in the Mexican game, an out-and-out goal-scorer. He knew exactly where the net was. Benitez scored goals with his left foot, right foot and head almost in equal number.

For Santos Laguna, he netted 51 times in 91 appearances, while for America he scored 52 goals in 79 games. Benitez was the highest scorer in the Mexican league in four different seasons. The Ecuadorian was one of, if not the best player in Mexico during his time in North America.

Benitez also became famous for his fiercely competitive spirit that sometimes led to criticism when he was visibly unhappy about being substituted, but it highlighted his will to win. The fact so many of his former teammates have come out in support of his family at this difficult time suggests he was very well liked and respected.

The Liga Bancomer MX is likely to pay tribute in some way, as is Club America in Saturday’s home game in the Estadio Azteca, which is set to become a celebration of what Benitez meant to America fans in front of a packed 100,000-seat stadium.

Not commonly known are the struggles Benitez went through to eventually make it and his rise has, in many ways, all the makings of a movie script.

His father Ermen “La Pantera” Benitez is a famous name in Ecuador and was the first Ecuadorian player to play professionally in Europe – at Xerez in Spain - but didn’t have anything to do with Benitez until later in life, while his young mother left for Italy in search of work.

That left the young Benitez in the care of his grandmother in the northwestern Ecuadorian town of Esmeraldas, where the family attempted to stay above the breadline, with Benitez doing a range of menial jobs to scrape together money, according to various reports.

“I missed out on many necessities, but throughout my life I liked soccer and thanks to God I succeeded (in it),” Benitez told Cancha in 2008. “I used to go to houses to pick up garbage, I cleaned shoes, thousands of things. Sometimes I had to go out to find something to eat, sometimes I washed cars.”

Football offered him a way out of that impoverished lifestyle relatively early, as he debuted at 16 with El Nacional and soon became one of the youngsters to look out for in Ecuador.

Perhaps the criticism Benitez took when he left America for Qatar can be better understood when taking his childhood into account, especially considering he leaves behind three children.

But - as family members told Proceso back in May – his life drastically changed when he arrived in Mexico with Santos Laguna in 2007.

Barring a brief spell at Birmingham City in the 2009-10 season, Benitez lit up the Mexican league consistently from 2007 until that special night back in May in the Estadio Azteca when he lifted the title with America. He’ll be sorely missed.