Canadian soccer’s favourite son has come home.
After taking a year off from international duty, Atiba Hutchinson is back with the Canadian national team, recalled for next Tuesday’s Concacaf Nations League qualifier against Dominica at Toronto’s BMO Field.
A six-time Canadian player of the year, Hutchinson is widely regarded as this country’s best soccer export, having spent the majority of his pro career playing abroad with several big European clubs. The veteran midfielder has also been one of Canada’s most loyal servants, with six goals in 78 appearances since making his national team debut as a 19-year-old in 2003.
Hutchinson, now 35, last played for Canada in a friendly against Jamaica in Toronto on Sept 2, 2017. A lot has changed since then, including John Herdman taking over the coaching reins from Octavio Zambrano earlier this year.
Hutchinson spoke at length on a variety of subjects during a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet, including his return to the national team, his current status with Turkish team Besiktas, his future for both club and country, and whether he feels appreciated by Canadian sports fans.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Sportsnet: I watched the Istanbul derby between Besiktas and Fenerbahce a few weeks ago…
Hutchinson: It was pretty intense, huh? [laughs]
SN: Yeah! I knew the history of the rivalry, but this was the first time I saw them play each other, so I never really appreciated the intensity. What’s it like playing in that derby?
Hutchinson: The Fenerbahce-Galatasaray rivalry is bit more [important]. But Fenerbahce vs. Besiktas has been getting bigger and bigger over the years. When I first arrived, the club and players talked to me about it and let me know how important it was to win against Fenerbahce.
The atmosphere is amazing, whether it’s in their stadium or our stadium. It just brings that much more to the game whenever we play them. They’re great matches to play in, almost like little finals in the Turkish season. I get so pumped up for all the derby games. Besiktas hasn’t won a league game away to Fenerbahce in 14 years, so it’s a long time, and you want to win so bad and get your first win there, especially for the Besiktas fans who just want the three points so badly.
SN: How does it feel to be back with the Canadian national team after more than a year away?
Hutchinson: It’s great. It’s a good group of guys, and there’s a lot of guys I’d never met before. It’s nice to sit down with them, get to know them a bit, see how they are on the pitch. It’s always nice coming back to Canada and playing for my county. I’m excited and really looking forward to going to BMO Field and playing before our fans again because it’s been a while for me.
SN: Can you explain why it’s been more than a year since you’ve played for Canada? The coaching staff reached out to you over the past 13 months, but you decided to turn down their invites. Did you just need a break?
Hutchinson: It was mostly injury related. My body wasn’t feeling as good. At the end of last season [in Turkey], I had an ankle operation, so I was just rehabbing from that.
I was also thinking about things, and what I wanted to do. Before this past summer, I was speaking a little with John [Herdman] about what I wanted to do and what he wanted from me. It was good to have that talk and clear things up, and have a clear vision of what I wanted to do.
In my mind, and from what we spoke about, I want to be involved and play in these [Concacaf Nations League] games, get used to the group, and be a leader as much as I can right until next year’s [Concacaf] Gold Cup. Playing in the Gold Cup would be a good time for me, and then probably after that I’ll call it a day with the national team.
That’s the way I’m looking at and we’re looking at it, to play in one last tournament. Hopefully we can achieve some success with the country at the Gold Cup, something I’ve pretty much missed my entire career.
SN: So, the plan is to play in these upcoming Nations League matches, and at next summer’s Gold Cup, and then you’d retire from the national team?
Hutchinson: Yeah, I think so. That’s the way I’m looking at it. That’s where my mindset is now.
SN: How come? Why not keep playing? I talked to John Herdman recently and he said in his eyes it looks like you play as though you’re a young man.
Hutchinson: [laughs] Well, I’m 35 now, and I don’t see myself going through another four-year cycle of World Cup qualifying. Even after the last round of qualifying [for the 2018 World Cup in Russia] I felt like it might have been time to walk away and let the next generation take over and figure out things. Canada has given a lot to me, and I always feel like I want to give back, and that I have to give back to Canada. As much as it’s good for me to be involved in these games and at the Gold Cup, it’s also good for the team to have a leader who’s been around for a while.
SN: What about your pro career? What are your plans beyond this season?
Hutchinson: In my mind, I’m taking it a season at a time. If I’m feeling good at the end of the season in Turkey, and my body is holding up well, I’ll go again for another year. I’m not thinking two years ahead of time. I’m just enjoying myself and my football right now, and taking it one year at a time. We’ll see when next summer comes around.
SN: Would returning home to play in Major League Soccer be an option? Or do you want to finish your career at Besiktas?
Hutchinson: It’s always been an option. No team has ever really reached out in a serious way. There’s been a little bit of interest [from MLS teams] but it’s never gone far enough or been serious enough. And to be honest, I’ve been in Turkey with Besiktas for some time now, and they’ve given a lot to me. So, I really feel appreciated there and it’s like a second home for me. In my mind, I think mostly about ending my career there. Turkey is a great place, and it’s an amazing culture there. My three sons were born there, and my wife loves it there and doesn’t want to leave, so it’s home for us.
SN: This is your first Canadian camp under John Herdman. What’s your general impression of him?
Hutchinson: He has a lot of new ideas, and a way of getting through to the team. Everybody is on the same page, and everybody has a strong belief in him, so it’s been good. He’s a good guy for the group, and everybody has embraced him and his ideas, so it’s been a good start. There’s a real clear understanding of what he wants in training sessions. He pays very close attention to details.
He really understands modern football. Obviously, you need to get results with that, but just getting the team together the way he has, he’s stressed unity and what we’re fighting for. That’s important to have in a team if you want to have success. The belief is there, for sure.
SN: You’ve rejoined the Canadian team at a time when prospects such as Alphonso Davies are starting to break through. What do you make of the crop of young talent on this team?
Hutchinson: Very impressed. It’s very exciting see all of these guys after hearing about them and seeing them on TV. Coming here and seeing them, training with them, seeing how they are on the pitch, the talent and quality they have, it’s something different. It’s exciting times for this country. I really have a good feeling about what this group has to offer, and what level they can take it to. Things are going in the right direction, and the confidence is there. The team is looking good, and I think it’s in good hands with John. You have players who are at top clubs in Europe, and that’s something we’ve wanted to see for a long time, so it’s an exciting time.
SN: In the past, a lot of Canadian players explored their options and decided to represent other countries in international soccer. Now, it’s trending the other way with guys who have other options deciding to play for Canada. Ballou Tabla, who could have played for Ivory Coast, is the most recent example. Why do you think this is?
Hutchinson: The more you see it with younger guys who are making the choice to play for Canada, the other ones feed off of that. It opens their eyes. The more you see young talent committing, the more I think you’ll see it happen. We have some good players coming in, and more people are excited about it and want to be a part of it. It’s good to see and I hope to see it continue.
SN: Are you under-appreciated by Canadian sports fans? I mean, you play at a top club such as Besiktas, and you’re one of the few Canadian men’s players to have had success playing abroad in Europe. There’s an argument to made you’re the best player this country has ever produced. And yet, it seems to me like you fly under the radar here in Canada. Do you feel that way?
Hutchinson: I definitely feel that way. I don’t feel like what I’ve done in Europe is appreciated in Canada. I can feel that a lot of the times when I come home to play for the national team. But it’s not something that frustrates me. I understand where the game is at in Canada. A lot of the fans here identify more with their local teams, especially with the three sides in MLS.
I hope for the Canadian players who decide to go to Europe in the future and make a name for themselves that they’re recognized for what they’re doing. It’s been a thought of mine for sure about not getting more recognition, but what can I do, man? [laughs]