TORONTO — At 38, Atiba Hutchinson has been part of four failed World Cup qualifying campaigns.
Surrounded by a roster of rising stars, the veteran Besiktas midfielder has high hopes this time as Canada kicks off the final round of CONCACAF qualifying on Thursday against Honduras at Toronto's BMO Field.
"This time around we've got a team that is full of talent," Hutchinson told a virtual media call Tuesday. "A lot of players that are playing in some places, some good clubs around the world … This time around there's a different feeling in the squad and for everybody involved.
"We're just looking forward to getting this underway, getting started and just having a good run. And making everybody proud."
He calls this Canadian team "fearless."
"Which before you wouldn't see too often. In a lot of the games we'd go into a shell. And that's not the case anymore."
The Honduras game is the first of 14 in the so-called Octagonal that will see the 59th-ranked Canadian men play home-and-away matches against Mexico (No. 9), the U.S. (No. 10), Costa Rica (No. 44), Jamaica (No. 50), Honduras (No. 63), El Salvador (No. 64) and Panama (No. 74).
Come next March, the top three teams will book their ticket to Qatar for the November-December 2022 world showcase. The fourth-place finisher will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.
Canada has only ever made it to one men's World Cup, in 1986 in Mexico, and has not reached the final round of qualifying in the region that covers North and Central America and the Caribbean since the lead-up to France '98. The Canadians finished last in that six-team round-robin group with a 1-6-3 record.
The Canadian men defeated Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Suriname and Haiti (twice) to get the final round of qualifying this time.
With 85 international caps and a distinguished club career abroad, Hutchinson has led the way for Canadian players. The Canada captain is an icon in Turkey, where he has led the Black Eagles to league and cup glory
"The reputation Atiba has in the Canadian national team is the reputation he has in Turkey. And probably even more," said Canadian defender Sam Adekugbe, who recently made the move to Turkey's Hatayspor. "Atiba's name carries a lot of heavy weight in Turkey. He's known not just for his personality, but his quality on the pitch."
Classy on and off the field, Hutchinson took time out to visit Adekugbe at his Istanbul hotel en route to Hatayspor in Antakya, some 1,100 kilometres south of the Turkish capital.
Hutchinson, named Canada's male player of the year six times, spent much of Tuesday's availability answering questions about the new wave of young Canadian talent around him.
— On midfielder Stephen Eustaquio: "He might be young but he plays with a lot of maturity in his game. You can see he's a very smart player. Intelligent and he understands the game and he works hard … He's an important player for Canada."
— On midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye: "A lot of what he does is some of the stuff that I would do coming into the team when I was younger. What he does defensively, his work ethic as well and what he can give in the attack as well."
— On wingback/midfielder Tajon Buchanan: "I watched him over the Gold Cup. What he's been doing in a short period of time for Canada has been great thing to see. You can just see he enjoys the game, it doesn't matter the occasion. And that's great to see, especially in the younger players. To be fearless and just to go and express themselves. And that's exactly what he does every time he goes out on the pitch."
Buchanan was three when a 19-year-old Hutchinson made his Canadian senior debut in a 4-0 loss to the U.S. in January 2003. Jonathan David was also three at the time while Alphonso Davies was two.
Hutchinson worked his way up the ranks and through Europe, building his career carefully, starting with Osters and Helsingborg in Sweden and FC Copenhagen in Denmark. He joined Dutch side PSV Eindhoven in 2010 before moving to Besiktas in 2013.
A long line of Canadian coaches — John Herdman is his fifth in World Cup qualifying play — have recognized his talent. Hutchinson has started all 85 of his senior appearances and is just four caps away from tying Julian de Guzman's Canadian men's record of 89.
At 46, Herdman is just eight years older than his skipper.
Sadly, Hutchinson has experienced more lows than highs in Canadian colours. He started in the humiliating 8-1 loss to Honduras in San Pedro Sula in October 2012 that ended Canada's World Cup qualifying bid.
But times have changed.
"With this squad, there's a lot of confidence in the team," he said. "We go into games with a different mentality now. We believe that we can win against any team in this region. And the recent games and past success have shown that. It's a different feeling this time around, for sure … It's a good time right now to be a part of this team but obviously there's a lot of work that needs to be put in and we have a long way to go still.
"But yeah, it's different around this time I feel.""
Thursday marks the first game at home for the Canadian men since Oct. 15, 2019, when they posted a landmark 2-0 win over the U.S. at BMO Field in CONCACAF Nations League play. The 15 matches since have all been outside the country with 14 in the U.S. and one in Haiti.
Attendance Thursday will be capped just below 15,000 due to COVID protocols. Many will be there to see Hutchinson, a proud native of Brampton, Ont.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 31, 2021.
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press