The tattooed teardrop that sits below Felipe Caicedo’s left eye was inked long before last summer – a constant reminder of the “hard times” endured on his remarkable rise to professional footballer – yet he need not bear a badge to illustrate his most difficult experience.
The striker honed his talent in the rough neighbourhoods of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s most populated city, but it was in the contrasting confines of Moscow, his home while at Lokomotiv, that he received news that continues to haunt him.
Caicedo prefers not to elaborate on the evening he learnt a national team colleague, and long-time companion, was dead. Almost one year has passed since the tragic event of July 29, 2013, when Christian Benitez made his debut for El Jaish, the Qatar Stars League side. The match would be his last. In the hours after the game, Benitez complained of severe stomach pain and was taken to hospital. He never re-emerged. A sportsman in his supposed prime, his 27-year-old heart had failed him.
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Caicedo, preparing for a new season in Russian football, was informed by Liseth, Benitez’s wife. Even 10 months later and in the surrounds of the Mohammed bin Zayed Stadium – the home of current club Al Jazira – it is clear the loss still cuts to his core. Caicedo’s voice trailed off at the first mention of Benitez.
“I don’t like to talk too much about the relationship, but he was like my brother, you know?” he said. “We were very close to each other and we played together like 15 years. It was a tragedy for everybody: for his family, for the national team, for all of Ecuador.”
[ 2014 World Cup Group E team previews: Ecuador ]
That was evident at the funeral, when thousands lined the streets in Quito. A heavily attended public ceremony attracted figures from the sporting and political arena, including Rafael Correra, the country’s president. The head of the Ecuadorean Football Federation had already paid a moving tribute.
“This morning we woke feeling profound pain,” said Luis Chiriboga Acosta. “A pain that all Ecuadoreans share, after losing an extraordinary human being, a son, friend, husband and player.”
The main pitch at the national team’s training ground was renamed; the No 11 shirt, which Benitez had made his own since he first represented Ecuador in 2005, was retired – until Fifa said it was against the rules concerning squad numbers. Benitez had scored 24 goals in 58 appearances for his country, making him their third most prolific player of all time.
Caicedo was there throughout. The two had enjoyed the 2006 World Cup together: Caicedo, then 17 and taken for the experience, while Benitez, a few years older, impressed as Ecuador progressed to the last 16. He would later be nominated as one of the tournament’s best young players.
In the succeeding years, Benitez and Caicedo became the perfect partnership, a talented tandem on the pitch and firm friends off it. Benitez’s death was a hammer blow personally, but it rocked the entire team.
Riding high in qualification for next month’s Fifa World Cup, Ecuador nearly missed out on an automatic spot. Reeling from what had happened to a cherished teammate, they stuttered, winning one of their four remaining Conmebol matches. They scraped through on goal difference.
Having got to Brazil, though, they plan to use Benitez as inspiration. Whatever Ecuador achieve in the next few weeks, they will do so for him.
“It was really, really sad, but now we have to keep going,” Caicedo said. “To look forward to the World Cup and do everything in his name, because he deserved to be in the World Cup. But it’s difficult.
“When you have someone who is the main person in the group and now he’s not here, it’s hard because he brought us together. Everyone looked up to him.”
Caicedo wants to pay his own tribute to Benitez. His is considering wearing No 11 for the tournament, but even if he does not, the expectation to fill the void remains.
Instrumental in Ecuador’s qualification for a third World Cup – he scored seven goals en route to the finals – much responsibility falls on his broad shoulders. Yet he will not shirk it. At 25, and with World Cups and Copa Americas under his belt, Caicedo is a veritable veteran.
“It’s a big expectation because I’m the top scorer from qualification and maybe one of the most experienced players,” he said. “But when you represent the national team, in every game you play with big expectation, you have pressure from everybody.
“So I have to take it easy, be focused, concentrate. All I want is to help the team. And if it goes better, I can help us pass the group.”
Ecuador are confident of doing that. Their Group E assignment opens on June 15 with Switzerland in Brasilia; then come Honduras and France. Having beaten Portugal and Australia, and last week drawn with the Netherlands, Ecuador arrive in positive mood. They expect to improve on 2006, their best performance on the global stage.
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“We want to better that,” Caicedo said. “We want to do more than the last World Cup. That means the quarter-finals – that’s our mentality. We’ll go step-by-step, winning all the games, and if we can win seven games it will be really perfect.”
Before that unlikely final appearance, Group E provides several subplots. Caicedo began his professional career in 2008 at Basel, in Switzerland. A chance meeting in January with Eren Derdiyok, the Swiss striker who used to play for Basel, allowed for some gentle World Cup teasing. However, Derdiyok was left out of Ottmar Hitzfeld’s squad.
In the tie with Honduras, both coaches – Ecuador’s Reinaldo Rueda and Luis Fernando Suarez, his opposite number – will be managing against their former sides.
“It’s funny, but it’s going to be hard,” Caicedo said. “We know we’ll have to fight to pass the group.”
Ecuador believe they have the talent to mirror the tenacity. Caicedo heads an exciting new generation, although there is considerable experience in Antonio Valencia, Christian Noboa and Edison Mendez. Some have suggested this is the greatest Ecuador side in history.
“Yeah, it’s true,” Caicedo said. “Famous former players have said so. For me, it’s true because we have a good quality; the players are young, but experienced as well. It’s a very good team. We’re in the right moment for the World Cup.”
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Unbeatable at a Quito home that stands 2,800 metres above sea level, Ecuador feel the squeeze when outside their borders. During qualifying, they did not register a victory away from the Stadio Olimpico Atahualpa. Caicedo is determined to put that straight, to prove Ecuador are more than altitude autocrats, but he recognises that at football’s apex oxygen can be limited, too.
“A World Cup’s a lot of pressure, man. It’s a different level, up another level,” he said. “I cannot explain because it’s crazy. All the people there, all the countries there. And we’ll have even more in Brazil.”
There will be one glaring omission, of course, a player Rueda describes as “practically irreplaceable”. Absent in body, Benitez will be ever-present in spirit, visualised in the tattoo that now adorns Valencia’s upper arm, referenced in team talks and pre-match speeches.
“Yeah, yeah, always,” Caicedo said. “It’s not easy to forget one brother. It’s not easy to forget about Christian. We want to do it for him.”
One thing you didn’t know ...
Felipe Caicedo. At 15, Caicedo took part in a reality television show called Camino de la Gloria (The Road To Glory).
Essentially a talent contest for aspiring footballers, he won a 30-day trial at Boca Juniors in Argentina, but then returned to Rocafuerte, his junior side in Ecuador.
His skills in front of the camera saw him nicknamed “Scolari”.