Veteran midfielder Atiba Hutchinson is back looking to get Canada get to World Cup

·4 min read

There are many ways to measure Atiba Hutchinson's contributions to Canadian soccer.

But consider the fact that Thursday should mark the veteran midfielder's 28th World Cup qualifier in Canada colours. Nineteen members of the current Canadian squad haven't even reached that number in caps.

Jayden Nelson and Theo Corbeanu, the youngest members of the Canada roster, were three months and 10 months old, respectively, when Hutchinson made his senior debut in January 2003.

The marks the fifth World Cup qualifying go-round for the 38-year-old from Brampton, Ont., who is still playing his trade at the top level with Turkey's Besiktas.

"It's been a great experience," said Hutchinson, who has won 84 caps for Canada. "I've really enjoyed the whole ride."

On Thursday, the long road to the World Cup starts again for Hutchinson and the 73rd-ranked Canadians. Canada kicks off against No. 169 Bermuda, a holiday destination whose population of some 72,000 is about the same as Sarnia, Ont.

Hutchinson's goal is still to see Canada get back to the soccer showcase that it has only been able to watch from afar since its lone qualification in 1986

"For me to have any kind of involvement with helping Canada to achieve that, qualifying for a World Cup, it would be everything," he told a virtual media conference from Florida on Wednesday. "I think that's something that in mind I've always told myself that's missing in my career.

"I've achieved some things and played in some high levels and good stages, but that's always something that I've dreamt of — playing in a World Cup or seeing Canada play in a World Cup. It would be amazing, an amazing achievement."

Only goalkeeper Pat Onstad, now technical director and vice-president of soccer operations for Columbus Crew SC, has played in more World Cup qualifying cycles (six) for Canada.

Hutchinson is currently tied with Paul Stalteri for the second-most caps among Canadian men. Julian de Guzman tops the list at 89.

Hutchinson has started in 80 of his 84 senior appearances for Canada.

Listed at just over six foot one, Hutchinson is a tall drink of water with long spindly legs like pipe-cleaners. But his strength is deceptive — he is able to fend off defenders and retain the ball.

Fans in Turkey lovingly call him Octopus.

Hutchinson, who was 19 when he debuted for Canada under Holger Osieck, worked his way up the ranks and through Europe, building his career carefully starting in Scandinavia with Osters and Helsingborg in Sweden and FC Copenhagen in Denmark.

He joined Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in 2010 before moving to Turkey in 2013. His three kids were all born there.

He has quietly become a Canadian soccer icon, although in recent years he has listened to his body and restricted his trips back for games that matter. He last played for Canada at the Gold Cup in June 2019.

"I've kind of missed it. So I'm excited about having that opportunity to represent Canada again, be with the boys, be in this environment again," he said.

While officially a Canadian home game, the Bermuda match was shifted to Orlando's Exploria Stadium because of pandemic-related travel restrictions.

The Canadians face the 193rd-ranked Cayman Islands on Sunday in Bradenton, Fla. The game was slated to be played in the Caymans but was moved to avoid quarantine and other restrictions.

Canada is 5-0-4 all-time against Bermuda and has won the last three outings (2-0 in 2000, 4-2 in 2017 and 3-0 in 2007). Hutchinson scored the opening goal in the 2007 win — one of his seven goals for Canada.

According to the Bermuda Royal Gazette, former Toronto FC midfielder Reggie Lambe has had to drop out of the squad after being involved in a bike accident that resulted in stitches. Bristol City forward Nahki Wells was unable to join the team because of quarantine issues.

“Obviously the team is not quite at full strength," coach Kyle Lughtbourne told the Bermuda newspaper. "We have had to face so many challenges because of COVID regulations, but it is what it is."

After Canada, Bermuda faces Aruba at the IMG Academy in Bradenton next Tuesday.

Bermuda held a training camp in Bradenton earlier this month when it posted a 3-0 win and 0-0 draw with the Bahamas in a pair of training matches.

"Obviously we are under no illusions about the task of facing Canada, but I know what we are capable of … Canada have been able to name a really strong squad. Obviously, they are not taking us lightly," Lightbourne said.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 24, 2021

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press