VANCOUVER—Julian de Guzman and Atiba Hutchinson stood on the pitch inside a dark and mostly empty BC Place, trying to come to terms with their disappointment.
It had been more than an hour since Canada’s hopes of continuing on the path to the 2018 FIFA World Cup had ended. A 3–1 win over El Salvador on the night wasn’t enough for Canada to leapfrog Honduras, who managed a scoreless draw in Mexico to claim the second spot in CONCACAF Group A.
Canada’s failure to advance to “the Hex,” the final stage in World Cup qualifying, seemed to signal the end of an era. It is likely the end of coach Benito Floro’s tenure—the Spaniard would not discuss his future, saying only that “this is a matter for another moment, not now.” But more significantly, the end of Canada’s bid to reach the next World Cup seemed to indicate a turning point for national team veterans de Guzman and Hutchinson.
“Emotionally it’s been very heavy,” said de Guzman, who’d watched from the sidelines. Canada’s all-time leader in caps with 89 was unable to play in the country’s last two games due to injury; he’d travelled with the national team nonetheless because Floro deemed him an indispensable leadership presence.
“For me, dying to be on the pitch. Unfortunately, couldn’t due to injury,” de Guzman said. “Knowing that this was probably my last moment as well.”
Reflecting on everything that happened, the 35-year-old midfielder indicated that his career, not just with the national team but as a professional footballer, would be coming to an end. De Guzman, who is currently playing with the Ottawa Fury of the second-tier North American Soccer League, said he’d been thinking a lot about his career in the lead-up to Tuesday’s match.
“Now, for me, this has been my major push to continue to play football, and because we’re no longer going on to the next stage, I think that’s probably it for me,” he said. “So it was really hard to see the game go down like that, but at the same time I’m proud of not just myself but the entire squad.”
While Canada managed three goals on the night—prior to Tuesday, the Reds managed just two goals total in the fourth round of qualifying—de Guzman said the team had done itself no favours by conceding so many goals in previous matchups and needing to both make up for a five-goal differential and rely on Mexico to beat Honduras.
“I think those two games against Mexico really hurt us,” he said. “It did do a lot to our confidence. And it’s unfortunate—we were also hoping to get a result in El Salvador. That was also a game-changing moment for us. But letting in five goals against Mexico really did a lot to us going into these last few games.”
A visibly emotional Hutchinson said he was proud of his team, indicating that he felt they’d had the quality to move on to the next round.
“I thought we played some very good football,” he said. “I’ve said it before, I thought this was one of the best groups we’ve had. We were confident. We were creative.”
The key issue in moving forward, said Hutchinson, would be for Canada to figure out how to get a result on the road.
“It’s not easy playing away from home and that’s something that’s going to be important in the way Canada go about our next round of qualifying games,” he said.
Hutchinson, by far one of the greatest players the country has ever produced, fought back tears when asked whether he would consider representing Canada again. The Besiktas midfielder’s playing days are far from over, though it’s likely that his national team career is done.
“We’ll see what happens,” he said. “It’s too early to say right now. I’m 33, so we’ll see.”
Gutted as they were, both players insisted the future is still bright, so long as Canada can move forward. De Guzman, who likewise said he felt Canada had the talent necessary to reach “the Hex,” expressed hope in some of the younger members of the national team.
“I still believe a lot of these guys will be around for another cycle at least, maybe two cycles,” he said. “There’s quality there. There’s a lot of up-and-coming quality as well.”
“It’s a bright future,” said Hutchinson. “There’s a lot of talent here. We just have to continue to build on what we’ve been doing. We’ve been very strong at home and we have to continue that way.”
“It’s been very special for me,” he added of the opportunity to represent Les Rouges.
De Guzman, who will see out the end of his season with Ottawa, said he hopes to continue his involvement with the Canadian team in some other role in the future.
“I still want to be a part of this,” he said. “I still bleed red. This is my degree right here, Canadian football. And I still believe we’re going to go to major places. We’re going to eventually have our league. That’s going to be something that could definitely help us make a World Cup at some point, and I want to be a part of that.”
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