Canadian defender Attakora: ‘I’m still here’

Nana Attakora, left, in action for Canada. (Chris Young/CP)

Nana Attakora wants to make one thing perfectly clear: He’s still around.

It’s been a trying year-and-a-half for the former Toronto FC defender who spent the 2014 MLS campaign with D.C. United without playing in a single regular season game.

Attakora, a 25-year-old native of North York, Ont., signed with D.C. in January and ended up missing the entire pre-season training camp after injuring his knee while away with the Canadian national team. He overcame that, only to injure his foot in May, ruling him out for another six weeks. He returned again, but then suffered a concussion in late June. Another comeback, another injury: He tore his quad in September.

Programming alert: Watch Panama vs Canada live on Sportsnet ONE and Sortsnet World in an international friendly from Panama City on Tuesday, November 18. Coverage begins at 7:45 pm ET/4:45 pm PT. || Sportsnet World NOW || TV schedule ||

All of this after a 2013 season that saw him feature in just eight games for the San Jose Earthquakes—he banged into TFC’s Doneil Henry, played two more matches, and was then sidelined for the rest of the year with post-concussion syndrome.

Attakora hasn’t played in a single game since earning the last of his seven caps for Canada in a friendly against Slovenia on Nov. 19 2013. In that time, he’s fallen off the radar, and dealt with fans and media who have written him off. But Attakora insists he is healthy, he is eager to get his career back on track, and is looking forward to playing for his country again after being called up by coach Benito Floro for Canada’s friendly next Tuesday against Panama in Panama City.

“I’ve dealt with the injuries as best I could. I can’t control getting hit in the head. I can’t control hurting my foot. I can’t control getting injured. All I can control is how I recover and work hard to get back," Attakora told Sportsnet. "I think I’ve done that in my career. I’ve always overcome. After all of this, after all I’ve been though in the last 18 months, I’m still here."

Along with the physical pain, Attakora has dealt with a fair bit of mental torment. Watching from the stands (while he was injured) or from the bench (when he was healthy but couldn’t break in the starting 11) as D.C. finished first place in the Eastern Conference took a psychological toll on the Canadian defender.

“It was always hard at D.C. because we were strong team this year and we had a lot of experienced veteran players. It wasn’t easy being hurt and then getting back into the team and having players ahead of you," Attakora said. "It was a difficult situation—missing pre-season was a huge blow because it meant I was playing catch up all year."

Through it all, though, Attakora refused to feel sorry for himself.

“I’ve been in this game a while. I started when I was young, and the one thing I’ve learned is you have to stay mentally strong. You can’t be weak. Injuries happen; they’re a part of life. There are people out there who deal with far worse things, so you have to deal with it,” Attakora said.

He credits a “great support system” of family and friends in helping him to stay positive. Floro was very supportive, too.

“I had a lot of one-on-one conversations with Benito where he’s told me that I’m a good player, that he likes what I bring and that he believes in me,” Attakora said.

“He told me to be patient, that helped me to stay positive. He’s been a great influence on me that past 18 months.”

Former TFC teammate Julian de Guzman, who’s been called up for the Panama game, went out of his way to offer moral support to Attakora.

“I speak with him all the time … he’s helped me stay positive and helped me get back. He has dealt with injuries and personal issues throughout his career, and he’s someone who likes to talk to young guys and help them out. When we are at TFC we became good friends, so he’s always been there for me when things haven’t been going well for me,” Attakora revealed.

Soccer Central podcast: SPORTSNET.CA's Soccer Central podcast, hosted by John Molinaro and James Sharman, takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport's biggest issues. To listen and subscribe to the podcast, CLICK HERE.

Attakora made 56 MLS appearances for TFC between 2007 and 2011, and was being touted as one of Canadian soccer’s brightest prospects. But ever since he was traded to San Jose in July 2011 in a multi-player deal that brought midfielder Terry Dunfield to Toronto, his career has been on a downward trajectory thanks to injury problems and an unsuccessful stint with Finnish club Haka in 2012.

Now that the Canadian defender is healthy again, he’s looking to regain his top form a club level—although he’s not sure whether he’ll back at D.C. next year after recently speaking with coach Ben Olsen.

“The most important thing for me is being in an environment where I have a chance to play. We’ll see what happens going forward,” Attakora said.

He might not figure in Olsen’s plans, but Attakora speaks with the confidence of someone who expects to feature for Canada under Floro.

“He’s a great coach for Canada. He knows what he wants and how he wants us to play. He’s a great motivator. He’s a players’ coach, and if you have any issues he wants you to approach him directly. I think that’s good for players, especially with a rebuilding national team. That helps the young players, and I think he’ll be great for us in the long-term,” Attakora said.