Canada is renowned worldwide for many innovations. The zipper, insulin and Trivial Pursuit were all born in Canada. Sport also has a deep history in the nation. Canadian physician James Naismith invented basketball. Now the NBA is a multi-billion dollar industry. However, due to the frigid weather that affects the country for half of the year, winter sports have become Canada’s claim to athletic fame, especially ice hockey.
Many non-hockey athletes have been recognised for their sporting accomplishments over the years, though. Donovan Bailey was the world-record holder in the 100-metre dash and a gold medallist at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Seven years later, Mike Weir won The Masters. In football, Christine Sinclair is arguably the best Canadian female footballer of all-time.
However, the Canadian men’s national team is widely overlooked, mainly due to the lack of success at the international level. As a result, few players are recognised, even in their own country. Atiba Hutchinson is one of them. Beloved by fans everywhere he’s played and a loyal member of the Canadian national team, Hutchinson has never won the Lou Marsh Trophy, awarded annually to the most outstanding Canadian athlete.
Canada are 95th in the FIFA world rankings and have not qualified for a World Cup since 1986. However, a Canadian midfielder has captained Beşiktaş to consecutive Turkish Süper Lig titles and guided the club to the knockout stage of the Champions League for the first time. They’re not insignificant feats.
Those accomplishments led to Hutchinson being named Canada’s male footballer of the year in December for a record-extending sixth time. Even at 35 years of age, he is still valued by Beşiktaş and is playing at an incredibly high level.
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Beşiktaş is not the only club where Hutchinson left a mark. He was a key contributor at FC Copenhagen between 2006 and 2010. The Canadian won three league titles with the Danish giants and was awarded the Danish SuperLiga player of the year for the 2009/10 season.
At PSV Eindhoven, he started at right-back and in midfield. PSV reached the Europa League quarter-finals, although his appearances were somewhat limited due to multiple knee injuries. He had three operations in less than two years due to the lingering effects.
Canada’s non-existent reputation in Europe means its players have two options if they want to establish themselves outside North America. Dazzling European scouts as a teenager and moving to a big club is one route, albeit uncommon. Typically, they ply their trade in a region like Scandinavia, Eastern Europe or in the lower leagues across the continent to hone their abilities.
Hutchinson walked down the latter path and headed to Sweden at 20. He joined Östers, who wanted to bolster their squad after rising to the Allsvenskan. The newly promoted outfit could only hold onto the midfielder for one season before Helsingborg signed him. That eventually led to the Copenhagen transfer.
“I really enjoyed it. That’s really where everything got started for me,” Hutchinson said in a 2014 interview with the Canadian Press. “That helped me a lot, just learning the game really, playing with the first team and getting a lot of games. I kind of look at it like climbing the ladder. That’s exactly what I did. Every club I went to was a bit bigger and better than the previous club.”
The Scandinavian leagues are a great breeding ground for young footballers. A few other Canadians played in Sweden too. Mark Watson was at Östers five years before Hutchinson’s arrival. Goalkeeper Kenny Stamatopoulos represented Enköping and AIK. Twenty-one-year-old Sam Adekugbe decided to leave the Vancouver Whitecaps and embark on his European adventure. He was loaned to IFK Göteburg and recently signed a three-year deal with Norwegian side Valerenga.
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The Copenhagen move in 2006 was the beginning of Hutchinson’s trajectory, inclusive of playing in the Champions League and winning domestic titles. Even at right-back, he was a major contributor to the team’s success. It wasn’t just his tireless running but the vision and composure under pressure that won over the supporters.
In his first Champions League campaign in the 2006/07 season, Hutchinson started and finished all 10 matches for Copenhagen. He scored in the final game against Celtic and impressed versus Benfica as well. Four successful years in Denmark drew the attention of PSV.
A transfer to the Eredivisie was on, which suited Hutchinson more than Denmark. “The level is definitely higher,” said Hutchinson of the Dutch league. “In Denmark, it’s a good passing game but it’s a little more direct. In Holland, they like to play the possession game. A lot of teams play 4-3-3 and I had to get used to that formation. For me, it’s been OK. I like to keep the ball and play a possession game.”
Hutchinson played in a number of roles, from right-back to striker, while in Holland, however, a string of knee surgeries – three in a span of 18 months – significantly hindered the Canadian’s tenure in the Netherlands.
The first injury occurred during the summer at the 2011 Gold Cup while on national team duty. In September, he had to undergo a second operation to repair the torn meniscus in his left knee as the rehabilitation process didn’t go as planned. He had a third surgery towards the end of the calendar year. Hutchinson only played 21 matches in all competitions during the 2011/12 season, 29 fewer than the previous campaign.
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To make matters worse, Mark van Bommel signed in the summer of 2012, which meant Hutchinson had to move to right-back to accommodate the Dutch international. But his resilience to recover from three separate surgeries, and the selflessness to move positions, adhered himself to his team. It’s never easy to experience those hardships at 29 years of age, yet Hutchinson persevered.
Eventually, he returned to midfield after signing with Turkish giants Beşiktaş. He instantly became an idol for the club’s fans. As captain, he helped his team win back-to-back Süper Lig titles and guided the side to the round of 16 in the Champions League – a first for the Black Eagles.
Hutchinson has signed two new contracts since his initial deal with Beşiktaş. He captains one of the biggest clubs in the country, starts every week and, at 35, looks like he’s in the prime years of his career.
Şenol Güneş, who prefers a higher tempo of play compared to his first coach in Slaven Bilić, has definitely helped Hutchinson. As a deep-lying midfielder, he has to react quickly. Be it pressure from an onrushing defender or picking out the right pass to start a counter-attack, Hutchinson cannot afford to commit an error. If he does, the opponent might produce a dangerous scoring opportunity.
The Beşiktaş fans certainly appreciate his silky-smooth touch, his calmness under pressure, and leadership skills. The added pressure of being a title contender every season has helped revitalise Hutchinson: “With Beşiktaş, we’re playing to win the championship every year,” said Hutchinson. “Last year we won it, and the year before, so we’ve gone back-to-back. I’ve been playing, more or less, every game in the last few years, so to help out the team as much as I could have has been great.
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“I’ve seen the club grow from a club playing for second, third place, getting close to a championship but not getting it, and now becoming a powerhouse in Turkey, so it’s been very good for me and I’ve learned a lot there. I’ve continued to develop in my career and win championships, and of course we’ve been playing in Champions League the last two years, so it’s been great. I’ve had a lot of good experiences in Turkey, the fans have been amazing, showed nothing but love and support for me as a player.”
Back home in Canada, however, apart from football followers, Hutchinson’s efforts are under-reported. It’s a similar issue that Julian de Guzman faced during his career. As a deep-lying midfielder, he plays in a rather unglamorous position to the casual Canadian football fan. Even though de Guzman was playing in LaLiga – the first Canadian to do so – he received very few plaudits.
Now, as Hutchinson has returned to the national team fold, more fans are beginning to appreciate his uniqueness. Very few Canadian players have those same intangible traits. They don’t have the vision, the tactical intelligence or the composure under pressure. That is why he’ll be sorely missed when he retires. No one will be able to replicate those attributes, or attain his status in Europe, for a very long time.
For a player like Hutchinson, who isn’t arrogant or interested in personal accolades, perhaps he’s content with staying out of the spotlight in Canada. He certainly receives enough attention in Turkey to compensate.
However, more should appreciate Hutchinson and his journey. Few Canadians can say they have had a successful career in Europe, especially playing for some of the biggest clubs in Holland, Turkey and Denmark. The fact he had to fight every day to solidify his place, and overcame countless injuries in doing so, adds even more prestige to Hutchinson’s career achievements. If only more of his fellow Canadians knew about his story.
By Peter Galindo @GalindoPW