Atiba Hutchinson hopes to hoist a trophy for Canada before calling it quits
TORONTO — After 20 years of banging the drum for Canada Soccer, Atiba Hutchinson was a natural to lead the Viking Clap in front of the south stand at BMO Field after the Canadian men's 4-1 win over Honduras.
"I've always wanted to do that," the 40-year-old captain said with a smile. "It was nice. I was just trying not to lose my rhythm (with the drum).
"It was good. They (the fans) were kind of calling for me. I was just happy to do that. The support that they've always given to us as a team, (and) me myself, has been really great. It was a cool moment."
Hutchinson earned cap No. 103 off the bench, adding to his Canadian men's record (Christine Sinclair has won 322 caps for Canada). And with playing time dwindling of late at Turkey's Besiktas, where he is a club icon, he knows the end is near.
What's next, he was asked after Tuesday's game
"A couple more games," he said. "But yeah, I'm really close now to the end of it. It's been a great spell for me, a good career, I think. I just wanted to finish off on a high note … This is not my (retirement) announcement but I'm kind of just letting you guys know that I'm happy about the career that I've had with the national team. Just getting really close to the end of it."
The hope is that Hutchinson can hoist a trophy for Canada before calling it quits.
He will get that chance in June when the 53rd-ranked Canadians take on No. 61 Panama in the CONCACAF Nations League semifinal in Las Vegas. The 13th-ranked U.S. takes on No. 15 Mexico in the other semifinal at Allegiant Stadium.
Winning the tournament would be "huge," said Hutchinson.
"It's something that's missing for us," he said. "Lately we've been doing well. We've been playing good over this last cycle of qualifying to get ourselves in a World Cup. We got to a World Cup and got to enjoy that moment. But we need to start winning and showing that we're a dominant force here in CONCACAF.
"So that's in everybody's minds … We're happy about where we are right now, going to Vegas. It's going to be everything for us. We want to get that trophy and just show how good we can be and how good we are."
Hutchinson had just turned 17, and was a youth international, when the Canadian men turned heads in 2000 with an unlikely triumph at the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
Alphonso Davies was two when Hutchinson made his senior debut in January 2003 against the U.S. Midfielder Ismael Kone was six months old.
Like Sinclair, Hutchinson is Canada's talisman.
"The fact he's still with us, it's a blessing for all of us," said veteran midfielder Jonathan Osorio. "He's a true example of what every Canadian soccer player should aspire to become."
"A solid soldier. He's a real captain … definitely a person everyone should emulate," said forward Ayo Akinola.
Hutchinson was the oldest outfield player at the World Cup in Qatar. And in taking the field against Belgium, at 39 years 288 days, he became the second-oldest outfield player ever to make an appearance in the World Cup behind Cameroon's Roger Milla (42 years 39 days).
"He's just a really special man,'' John Herdman, who is Hutchinson's 10th Canadian manager, said on the eve of that World Cup opener. "I think all of us are in a moment where we'll be doing this as much for Atiba as we are to get our three points. He's a legend.
"I've had the privilege of being with Sinclair in key moments and now Atiba Hutchinson. And these are the moments you work hard to be part of."
Hutchinson has been a loyal servant to Canada in good times and bad, turning out for his country when it ranked 122nd in the world, sandwiched between Niger and Liberia (in October 2014).
"It's in a better place for sure," Hutchinson said of today's Canada team. "That's something that we've all wanted to do as a group, just to continue to push the limits and really make this team, this country, a footballing nation. I think every time we go out there, we go out there and we show the country the world, that we can play some really good football. And we're extremely proud of that."
Besiktas fans call him the Octopus for his long legs and reach. He's hard to dispossess with the ball and tough to fend off when he's looking for it.
Serene in his own skin, Hutchinson is content to avoid the limelight and just take care of business. But those in the know have always valued him.
"Atiba is our best player,'' then-Canadian coach Benito Floro said in 2014. "He is the best player in Besiktas.''
Arsene Wenger, then manager of Arsenal, singled out the Canadian that year after the Gunners beat Besiktas in a Champions League playoff.
"The best player on Besiktas?'' Wenger said during the post-game news conference. "I was impressed by Hutchinson.''
Former Canada coach Holger Osieck saw Hutchinson's potential at the CONCACAF under-20 championship back in 2002.
"I am actually convinced — and you know that I'm always pretty cautious in my predictions — that he has the tools to play first division football in Europe,'' said Osieck.
Hutchinson built his career carefully, starting in Scandinavia with Osters and Helsingborg in Sweden and FC Copenhagen in Denmark. Rather than moving to a big league or club where he might languish on the bench, Hutchinson moved to clubs that would use him.
Hutchinson's next move was in 2010 to the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven, a stint that was interrupted by three surgeries to his left knee.
When his contract ran out, he hoped a move to England might follow. When nothing suitable came up, he asked his agent to look at Turkey after hearing positive reports from teammates who had played there.
Hutchinson made it his home, with his wife and three boys.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 29, 2023
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press