Istanbul lives and breathes football. The game is religion in Turkey’s largest city. The stadiums, temples. “Fans put so much into the game there,” Besiktas’s lanky Canadian midfielder Atiba Hutchinson told FIFA.com with genuine awe. “When we win, there’s extreme happiness and when we lose, well, it’s the other side of that coin. Desolation.”
Now in his fourth season in Turkey, Hutchinson is witness to this passion week in and week out as an important member of the Besiktas midfield, where he wins the ball and stalks the pitch with tireless energy. But when he helped the club win the Turkish Super Lig last season, the fans outdid themselves.
“I’ve won titles and cups before, in Denmark and Holland, but this was nothing like I’ve ever seen,” said the five-time Canadian player of the year, a hint of his Trinidadian ancestry in the edges of his voice. “The party lasted all night, and for nights after that. People are still talking about it. There were boats out on the Bosporus with fireworks going off and people just going wild.”
It is safe to say that Hutchinson gets recognised on the streets of Istanbul. “Everyone supports one of the city’s big-three, whether it’s Besiktas or Galatasaray or Fenerbahce,” said Hutchinson who nearly left the club for England’s West Ham United during the recent off-season, only for fan outcry to force the Besiktas president to block the move. “Depending on who they support, they’re gonna like you or not like you. But I get noticed all the time on the streets, whether it’s a thumbs-up or a wave, or something else, it’s a city that’s passionate about the game, so they’re aware of who we are in a big way.”
Star in Istanbul, unknown at home
When asked if the same thing happens in Toronto, back in his native Canada, Hutchinson can't help but giggle. “I don’t ever get recognised in Canada. Not ever,” he chuckled, a good sport about his country’s polite relationship with the world’s game. It could not be farther from the beehive of passion and colour that is Istanbul, where the terraces are awash with flares, banners and heaving humanity.
Hutchinson’s been in Europe for over a decade, with stints in Sweden and Denmark, and in the Netherlands with PSV Eindhoven. He’s one of Canada’s greatest all-time players and a 75-cap international, but it does not mean he is a celebrity in the Great White North. A country that has failed to make the same strides as their southern neighbours USA, Canada have not reached a FIFA World Cup™ since their only appearance back in 1986. When back home, Hutchinson walks the streets in peace and anonymity.
“The soccer culture in Canada and in Turkey couldn’t be more different. The Turks love football the way Canadians love ice hockey,” he said in the midst of preparations for his country’s two September qualifiers for Russia 2018. The results of these two games will either end Canada's hopes of a place at the World Cup or send them to the final round of CONCACAF qualifying, the six-team Hexagonal.
End of the line
For Hutchinson, these two games could be the end of the road in the red shirt of his country. At 33, he’s still a lively ball-winner, but he’s no longer the box-to-box dynamo he once was. “This is definitely my last time around in World Cup qualifying,” he said matter-of-factly, looking back on a youth and senior national team career spanning almost two decades. “It would mean everything if we could get back to the World Cup. But first we need to get into the Hexagonal and take it from there.”
He claims this current Canada side, led by former Real Madrid boss Benito Floro, is 'the best he’s ever been a part of.' But even so, the road to the final qualifying round is fraught with peril. There is even lingering trauma to confront. On 2 September, the Canadians head to San Pedro Sula in Honduras and the very same ground where, four years ago, they were handed a humiliating 8-1 defeat that sent them out of the running for Brazil 2014. Hutchinson and the rest of the Canadian players walked off the pitch at the final whistle like whipped animals.
“That game’s been in the back of my head for a long time,” he said, his voice low like he’s telling a shameful secret. “All the rest of the players, they won’t forget it either. Now we have the chance to set the record straight.”
Canada are tied for second in semi-final Group A. A draw on the road in Honduras and a win at home four days later in Vancouver against El Salvador could be enough to see them to the final round. And if Hutchinson does his part to help achieve that success, he may get a few thumbs-up and high-fives on the streets of Canada’s cities like he does a world away in Istanbul.