TORONTO – After a year-long absence, Atiba Hutchinson has returned to the Canadian national team.
Just how long Hutchinson reamins in the fold hasn’t yet been determined, but coach Octavio Zambrano is holding out hope that Saturday’s friendly against Jamaica at BMO Field won’t be the veteran midfielder’s last game for Canada.
Hutchinson, 34, is one of Canada’s most skilled attacking midfielders, but he’s taken nearly a year off from international duty to focus on his pro career with Turkish club Besiktas. He sat out the CONCACAF Gold Cup earlier this summer as he was dealing with a nagging quad injury, and he also missed a number of friendlies after Canada was eliminated from qualifying for the 2018 World Cup last fall. His previous appearance for Canada came on Sept. 6, 2016 in a World Cup qualifying match against El Salvador in Vancouver.
Zambrano unveiled his team for the Jamaica friendly earlier this month, and Hutchinson’s name was included on the roster. That sparked speculation that Saturday’s contest could be the last of Hutchinson’s international career – a career that has seen the native of Brampton, Ont., score six goals in 77 appearances, and named Canadian player of the year on five occasions.
In a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet, Zambrano revealed that Hutchinson hasn’t made any final decisions about his international career, and that the midfielder remains open to playing for Canada beyond Saturday’s match.
“We spoke about this possibly being his last game, but he really doesn’t have to make that decision now. He can make it later. I told him after our initial conversation that I’d leave it up to him. … He thought it over and called me back and said he’d play [against Jamaica] and we’ll assess after that as time goes by,” Zambrano told Sportsnet.
“The response of Atiba couldn’t have been better because he left the door open. He could have easily said, ‘This is my last game, coach, I’m going to play in front of the Canadian fans and say goodbye.’ But his response was more like, ‘Maybe I can still contribute, and if you think I can, then maybe I will.’ It’s a good situation for us, it’s a good situation for Canada that he hasn’t closed the door.”
Zambrano took over as Canada’s coach back in March, and one of the first things he did was reach out to Hutchinson to try to convince him to return to the national team. Zambrano wanted Hutchinson to play at the Gold Cup – where Canada went on to bow out in the quarter-finals against Jamaica – but the midfielder politely declined the invitation.
It was a constructive conversation, and one that gave Zambrano hope that he’d eventually return to the national team by the end of the year.
“When I first took this job, I called Atiba and told him that I’d like him to come with us to the Gold Cup. At that moment, he told me he thought the national team was no longer in the picture for him because he was hoping to sign a new contract with Besiktas, and he was nursing a quad injury, so he just couldn’t make it. The timing wasn’t right and he was tired, so he wanted to take time off to nurse that injury and to get back healthy. All of that played out fine and I told him the door would always be open to him,” Zambrano explained.
Things changed when Canada Soccer announced in early June that the Reds would host Jamaica in Saturday’s friendly at BMO Field. That lead to Hutchinson reaching out to Zambrano about a possible return.
“Right before I announced the team he called me and asked me if he could and I said of course, 100 per cent. So, we had a long talk about his tenure in the national team, and what’s left of the time he wants to devote to us, and it was a very good, frank discussion,” Zambrano said.
“For the time being, he’s going to be with us and we’re going to take it day to day and game to game. We’ll see how he feels.”
Zambrano leaves no doubt that he hopes Hutchinson decides to keep playing for Canada, and that, despite his age, he can be an asset for the Reds when they begin the qualifying process for the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar.
“You can’t argue with the level he’s playing at, and what his vast experience means to our team, especially with so many youngsters. Whatever he can give us, if he chooses to keep playing for Canada, I know it’s going to be quality,” Zambrano said.
NOTE: I’ll have more with Zambrano on how he’s trying to convince a trio of young prospects – Ballou Tabla (Montreal Impact), Bryan Cristante (Benfica) and Ricardo Ferreira (Braga) – to forego their other international options and commit to playing for Canada. Look for that story Thursday on Sportsnet.