Vancouver Whitecaps' Sam Adekugbe, right, flights for control of the ball with Columbus Crew SC Ben Speas during the first half of MLS soccer action in Vancouver, B.C. Wednesday, April, 8, 2015.  THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

Canada’s Sam Adekugbe continues soccer journey with Turkey’s Hatayspor

Canada’s Sam Adekugbe continues soccer journey with Turkey’s Hatayspor

TORONTO — Sam Adekugbe’s soccer career has already taken him from the Vancouver Whitecaps to teams in England, Sweden, Norway and now Turkey with Hatayspor.

But the 26-year-old defender from Calgary is back in Canada, looking to do his bit for John Herdman’s team as it hosts Honduras at BMO Field on Thursday in the opening game for both squads in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.

Adekugbe, who has won 17 caps for Canada, believes the future is bright for the Canadian men.

“I just see endless possibilities,” he said. “I think we’re seeing the national team kind of peak at the right time. We’re seeing people make transfers, players playing in big leagues. This is just the start for Canada.”

“We know what our objectives are and we’re looking to the challenge, because we have something to prove,” he added.

While Mexico (No. 9), the U.S. (No. 10), Costa Rica (No. 44), Jamaica (No. 50) and Honduras (No. 63) earned byes to the final round of qualifying in the region by virtue of their world ranking, Canada, like El Salvador (No. 64) and Panama (No. 74), had to make the so-called Octagonal the hard way.

Canada defeated Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Aruba, Suriname and Haiti (twice) to make the final round of qualifying for the first time since the lead-up to France ‘98. Those wins moved the Canadian men up to No. 59 in the world rankings.

Canada now faces a seven-month, 14-game grind in its bid to qualify for the World Cup for the first time since 1986, its only other appearance at the soccer showcase. The top three teams in the CONCACAF round-robin will book their tickets to Qatar 2022, representing North and Central America and the Caribbean.

The fourth-place CONCACAF team will take part in an intercontinental playoff to see who joins them.

Adekugbe has worked hard to get where he is.

Born in London, England, Adekugbe was three when his family moved to Manchester and 10 when it came to Calgary. Those roots still run deep — he supports Manchester city while younger brother Elijah, a midfielder with the CPL’s Cavalry FC, follows Manchester United.

Adekugbe was 16 when he moved to Vancouver to join the Whitecaps residency program. He signed a homegrown contract with the MLS team in 2013 but made just 16 appearances for the team over the next four seasons, spending much of the time out on loan.

“I have good memories,” he said of Vancouver. “I met a lot of people there … I would have liked to have played more during my time there but things happen for a reason. Vancouver’s always going to be my home after football.”

Adekugbe had loans stints with Brighton in the English Championship and Sweden’s IFK Goteborg before joining Norway’s Valarenga in January 2018.

“I enjoyed my time there. It’s a beautiful country and a beautiful city, Oslo,” he said. “Valarenga was very good to me. I played a lot of football there. But I felt like now, with my contract running out, it was the right time to move in a different direction.”

After 87 appearances with the Norwegian side, he signed with Hatayspor in June, joining fellow Canadians Atiba Hutchinson and Cyle Larin, both with Besiktas, in the Turkish Super Lig. Adekugbe played the first three games of the season for Hatayspor, which currently sits ninth in the standings at 1-1-1, before joining Canada in Toronto.

He made his senior debut for Canada in a World Cup qualifier against Belize on Sept. 8, 2015, having previously represented his country at youth level.

His new home is in Antakya, located 1,100 kilometres southeast of Istanbul in a region bordered by the Mediterranean and Syria. While he is still finding his way there, he is already raving about the city’s renowned cuisine which has many Middle Eastern influences.

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has designated Antakya as a “city of gastronomy.”

“The people there are really lovely and friendly and the culture’s amazing … The food is unbelievable,” he said.

As for the football in Turkey, Adekugbe says his first impression is there’s plenty of quality on the field.

“There’s a lot of big-name players. It’s a step that I want to challenge myself in ,” said the left back.

Adekugbe expects his girlfriend, whom he met in Vancouver, to join him in Turkey, with his brother slated to visit after the CPL season.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 1, 2021.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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