LONDON, March 6 (Reuters) - Ecuador dropped the number 11 shirt from their team in honour of striker Christian Benitez who died last July but FIFA regulations mean they must reinstate it in their World Cup squad, coach Reinaldo Rueda said.
“Chucho” Benitez died suddenly of heart failure at 27 in Qatar where he was playing club football and amid the mourning of Ecuadorean fans the national federation (FEF) decided the team should no longer have a number 11.
“We will have to have it (for the World Cup), that’s what we’ve been told,” Rueda told Reuters after his side had beaten fellow finalists Australia 4-3 in a friendly in London - coming back from a 3-0 halftime deficit.
There was no number 11 on the Ecuador squad list for the game at The New Den, home of English Championship (second tier) side Millwall where a crowd of about 6,000, mainly Ecuadorean expatriates, were treated to a thriller.
Colombian Rueda will have been one of the happier South American World Cup coaches involved in the spate of warm-up matches across Europe and the Americas on Wednesday night after his five haltime changes were vindicated in a thrilling fightback.
Two key players in the comeback were young strikers Enner Valencia and Fidel Martinez, who both got on the scoresheet in their bid to pin down places in Rueda’s definitive 23-man World Cup squad.
Rueda said in an interview with Reuters before the match that replacing Benitez was impossible and he had to try other options but he also considered Ecuador’s wing play to be their principal strength.
This was borne out by captain Antonio Valencia on the right and substitute Jefferson Montero on the left stretching the Australian defence after Ecuador had failed to breach them through the middle with bustling target man Felipe Caicedo in the first half.
The win against a side Rueda termed European in style will also have been encouraging with Ecuador facing France and Switzerland in Group E. They also meet Honduras, the team he steered to the 2010 finals in South Africa.
Honduras’s two Jerrys, strikers Bengtson and Palacios, scored in a 2-1 win over Venezuela in San Pedro Sula for the team coached by another Colombian, Luis Suarez, who steered Ecuador to the second round at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
Colombia coach Jose Pekerman is trying to cover for the possible absence of Radamel Falcao, recovering after knee ligament surgery, from his squad at the June 12-July 13 finals in Brazil.
The former Argentina coach’s team were held 1-1 by Tunisia in Barcelona with midfielder James Rodriguez scoring with a penalty but striker Segundo Ibarbo had to come off midway through the first half with an injury after being barged dangerously by goalkeeper Farouk ben Mustapha.
Ibarbo’s substitute Adrian Ramos, joint top scorer in the Bundesliga, did not impress and Teo Gutierrez, Falcao’s usual strike partner in the South American qualifiers, who came on in the second half also failed to find the net as did Carlos Bacca, while Jackson Martinez was unused.
Colombia, who conceded a 35th-minute equaliser to Wahbi Khazri, meet Greece, Ivory Coast and Japan in Group C.
Argentina’s much vaunted attack led by Lionel Messi were kept goalless by Romania in a 0-0 draw in Bucharest but coach Alejandro Sabella, whose team face Bosnia, Iran and Nigeria in Group F, was pleased with goalkeeper Sergio Romero’s form despite his lack of action at Monaco where he has been kept on the bench.
“Romero had a very good match, he showed presence in the area,” Sabella told reporters.
“The majority of the players played on Sunday, they had a long journey to get here, one day’s practice, they play midweek matches because when there’s a World Cup the calendar is very tight,” he said as if also speaking for fellow coaches.
Oscar Tabarez’s Uruguay, semi-finalists in 2010 and up against Costa Rica, England and Italy in Group D,, were also held 1-1 in a dull draw in Austria in which they were indebted to winger Alvaro Pereira for their equaliser.
Chile, under Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli, warmed up for Group B matches against world champions Spain, 2010 runners-up the Netherlands and Australia, with a 1-0 away loss to Germany.
Luiz Felipe Scolari will have been even happier than Rueda after the World Cup hosts crushed South Africa 5-0 in Soweto with a fine, three-goal performance from Neymar.
Brazil, who get the tournament underway on June 12 against Croatia in Sao Paulo, also face Mexico and Cameroon in Group A.
Mexico drew 0-0 with Nigeria in Atlanta, Georgia and Costa Rica beat Paraguay 2-1 at home in San Jose with their opening goal coming from Joel Campbell, the striker who scored for Olympiakos in their 2-0 upset win over Manchester United in the Champions League. (Additional reporting by Carlos Calvo in Mexico City, Luis Ampuero in Buenos Aires, Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota)