Published On: Sun, Aug 12th, 2018

Dave Feschuk: Atiba Hutchinson is the best Canadian soccer player you’ve never heard of

It’s probably not a title he’d tack to his social-media bios, but Atiba Hutchinson is the most famous Canadian athlete not famous in Canada.

Born and raised in Brampton, the 35-year-old soccer star has made his name primarily in Istanbul, where he is beginning his sixth season in the Turkish Super League as a midfielder for Besiktas JK. As a measure of his fame in Turkey, where he played a key role in Besiktas’s run to league championships in 2016 and 2017, Hutchinson’s Instagram account boasts 486,000 followers, the most of any Canadian soccer pro and more than plenty of athletes who are household names in these parts, among them Thornhill-raised tennis pro Milos Raonic (371,000) and Scarborough-bred Olympic sprinting medallist Andre De Grasse (225,000). Even Hutchinson’s three-year-old son, Noah, has celebrity status in Turkey, his smiling cuteness a fixture on the feeds of that country’s rabid soccer enthusiasts. When Hutchinson’s Brampton-based parents, Dalton and Myrtle, make their regular visits to Turkey to see their son play, they’re often ushered past the airport throngs like dignitaries.

Atiba Hutchinson is hugely popular in Turkey and barely known in his native Canada, which might help explain why MLS teams haven’t been knocking at his door.
Atiba Hutchinson is hugely popular in Turkey and barely known in his native Canada, which might help explain why MLS teams haven’t been knocking at his door.  (VI-Images via GETTY IMAGES)

“Once they recognize Atiba’s name, anybody connected to him that’s travelling, they just get the royal treatment all the way,” Myrtle Hutchinson said recently. “It’s nice. I don’t get it here. But we get it there. And I don’t need it. But it’s him. He’s treated differently over there.”

Said Dalton: “(Atiba) can’t walk down the street in peace over there. And (Noah), also. Everybody wants to take a picture. Everybody. When we go to the game, we have to hide (Noah). Those people are crazy (about soccer) over there.”

And yet when Hutchinson returns to his home and native land, he resides in relative obscurity. Never mind that he’s a national team staple who has been named the Canadian Soccer Association’s player of the year a record six times, including the past four seasons. Never mind that earlier this year Hutchinson passed Tomasz Radzinski for the most matches played by a Canadian in the UEFA Champions League, when Besiktas made it to the round of 16, losing to Bayern Munich. Hutchinson, who began his pro career with stints in Sweden, Denmark and Netherlands before a 2013 move to Besiktas, simply isn’t as well-known in the GTA as, say, four-time Canadian player of the year Dwayne De Rosario, who never competed at a level comparable to Hutchinson’s but starred for Toronto FC. Hutchinson’s name is bigger globally, but smaller locally.

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“Atiba Hutchinson, for me, is the best player we’ve ever produced. And I say ‘we’ve produced,’ but it’s pretty hard to say we’ve produced him, because he produced himself, going over to Europe (as a teenager),” said Craig Forrest, the Sportsnet analyst who was twice named the CSA’s player of the year during his run as a goalkeeper in the English Premier League.

Said Bob Lenarduzzi, the former national team player and coach, now president of Vancouver Whitecaps FC: “He’s had an unbelievable career. But the fact he’s been over there — he doesn’t get the profile his career warrants.”

Hutchinson’s accomplishments, if they’ve been widely unnoticed in his homeland, have been worthy of celebration. While the Turkish Super League doesn’t rank as one of the world’s top few circuits, its best teams, including Besiktas, are well-heeled operations. This week the web site FiveThirtyEight.com released its global club soccer rankings, an attempt at establishing a hierarchy among some 576 professional soccer clubs around the world. Besiktas came in at No. 41. Toronto FC, by way of comparison, ranked 217th.

Not that Hutchinson, who lives in Istanbul with his Danish wife, Sarah, and their three sons, wouldn’t be interested in finishing his career in North America. In a phone interview with the Star a few months back, before he signed a one-year contract to play this season with Besiktas, the player acknowledged he’d be open a move to Major League Soccer.

“It would be nice for me to play in Canada,” Hutchinson said. “I didn’t have a chance when I was younger because we didn’t have any teams. But now all three teams (Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) have been doing quite well … It would just be nice to play in front of my family, week in, week out, just to be at home playing professionally. It would be nice to try that before retiring.”

Still, there are those who’ll tell you the MLS interest wasn’t mutual, and that Hutchinson’s relative anonymity in North America was a factor.

“If he would have been more well known here, his price tag would have been larger and he would have been one of the designated players coming to a Canadian team,” Forrest said. “But unfortunately, with him being not well known and not particularly going to have the ability to sell jerseys at a level (clubs) would want, they’re not going to give him the money he could earn in Turkey. So he’s over there.”

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Said Haldon Hutchinson, Atiba’s older brother: “There should have been four, five, six MLS teams begging for this guy. He didn’t even have a call. Not even a call … It’s pretty sad that here, nobody knows him. Even the people that know him still don’t get it – they don’t get the magnitude of the player he is. It hurts.”

Exactly why has Hutchinson’s excellence been such a well-kept secret on these shores? Certainly the national team’s relative lack of success hasn’t helped. Hutchinson, who has captained the squad, has played in 78 matches for the country, the fifth-most on record. But Canada hasn’t qualified for the FIFA World Cup since 1986, depriving the team’s best players of the attention of the big stage. Another factor, said Haldon Hutchinson, is Atiba’s reserved personality.

“He’s pretty shy and humble,” Haldon said of Atiba. “He doesn’t put himself out there in the way that other guys like Julian (De Guzman) and (De Rosario) did … And a lot of us have always been, ‘You’ve got to get out there and make yourself more of a brand, make yourself recognizable, become a household name.’”

De Guzman and De Rosario, of course, are both GTA-bred talents who played in Europe before capping their careers with Toronto FC. Whether or not Hutchinson will eventually follow their model and be repatriated in his waning days as a pro — his mother and father are hoping for the best while they prepare for a coming trip to Turkey, where the usual royal treatment awaits.

“We’re so proud of him, and he’s just not recognized enough in Canada,” Myrtle Hutchinson said. “In Turkey, everybody knows who he is … I don’t know why Canada doesn’t recognize him. Is it because it’s soccer and it’s not hockey? I don’t know.”

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Dave Feschuk: Atiba Hutchinson is the best Canadian soccer player you’ve never heard of