While proud of his accomplishments with the national team, Julian de Guzman only sees positives in the fact that his record for men’s Canadian caps is about to be broken.
For one, the player approaching the 89-cap mark is Atiba Hutchinson.
“We go back a long way, … He’s like a brother to me,” said de Guzman, who retired in January 2017 after a stellar career in France, Germany, Greece and Spain as well as North America.
“I think he’s a great example of what a career should look like … So for him to be the guy to break this record, I mean you couldn’t ask for a better person to do it,” he added.
De Guzman, who also expects Cyle Larin or Jonathan David to surpass Dwayne De Rosario’s scoring mark of 22 goals, believes seeing such records fall shows Canadian soccer is headed in the right direction.
“I’ve told this to many players, from (Jonathan) Osorio to (Sam) Piette, Richie Laryea, Doneil Henry, I’ve always said ‘Hey, these records, if they don’t get broken, then that means we’re not going to the World Cup,’” said de Guzman, who now doubles as a TV pundit and co-owner of League One Ontario’s Simcoe County Rovers FC.
“The moment these things are broken, those are all good signs pointing towards Qatar (2022), that’s pointing towards ‘Now this is a Canadian men’s national team that plays and performs in World Cups.’ These are good signs.”
And records are meant to be broken. Before de Guzman, there was Paul Stalteri (84 caps). And before him, Randy Samuel (82).
The 38-year-old Hutchinson, who is a beloved captain at Turkey’s Besiktas where Larin also plays, is on 88 caps ahead of Canada’s World Cup qualifiers in Edmonton. He’ll also be Canada’s captain for the match.
Canada, currently ranked 48th in the world, plays No. 45 Costa Rica on Friday and No. 9 Mexico on Nov. 16, both at Commonwealth Stadium.
Hutchinson, on his fifth World Cup qualifying campaign, is not big on records or personal accolades.
“It’s not something I was keeping in the back of my mind and really pushing for,” he told a virtual availability Monday from Edmonton. “Obviously now I’m very close to it so there’s been a little bit more thought put into it.”
Hutchinson was happier to talk about de Guzman, saying how much he respected his fellow midfielder — and appreciated his game.
“I was more looking forward to just being part of what’s going on here with the national team still,” he added. “When I get the chance to get another game to be equal with Julian, it would be a great achievement, of course. To play that many games and to be the … leader for Canada would mean a lot to me.”
Christine Sinclair is Canada’s all-time leader in caps with 306. She tops the world in goal-scoring with 188.
A long line of Canadian coaches — John Herdman is his eighth senior Canada coach — have recognized Hutchinson’s talent. Hutchinson has started in 87 of his 88 senior appearances.
“Atiba is our best player,” then-coach Canada Benito Floro said in 2014. “He is the best player in Besiktas.”
At 46, Herdman is just eight years older than his skipper.
Tajon 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. David was also three at the time and Alphonso Davies was two.
His teammates marvel at Hutchinson’s professionalism, work ethic and ability to stay at the top of the game.
“I mean the guy’s a Canadian legend,” Laryea told a recent virtual Toronto FC availability. “He’s 38 and still playing at a high level, playing Champions League. And now leading this group of players that we have to try to qualify for a World Cup.
“So I would just say (he’s) a big role model of mine, he’s a top-class guy on and off the field, a true professional. I don’t know, I could sit on this call with you all day and explain things about him, because he’s a big piece of what this country has to offer.”
Defender Derek Cornelius says Hutchinson sets the tone for the team, in his own way.
“Whenever he speaks, people listen. And he does it in the right way as well, because he’s also a guy that if you have an opinion or want to say something, he’s going to listen to you no matter if it’s your first camp or you’ve been around a while.
“And that makes a great leader.”
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.
The six-foot-one Hutchinson, named Canada’s male player of the year six times, does not come with the flash or sizzle of a Davies. His spindly pipe-cleaner legs deceive at first notice.
But he sees the game, has a knack for being in the right place. He is like a soccer Hoover, vacuuming up balls then holding off opponents before finding a teammate.
Besiktas fans call him Octopus for his long legs and long reach.
Canadian defender Sam Adekugbe, who recently made the move to Turkey’s Hatayspor, has firsthand experience of how Hutchinson is viewed in Turkey.
“The reputation Atiba has in the Canadian national team is the reputation he has in Turkey. And probably even more,” he said. “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.”
Hutchinson, who is married with three kids, 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.
While in recent years his time with the Canadian team has been limited to games that matter, Hutchinson is still willing to make the long trip from Istanbul when needed.
He thought about calling an end to his international career after the last failed World Cup qualifying cycle. But after talking to Herdman, he decided to see the journey through.
“It’s been a long road and a lot of ups and downs,” he said. “But I do definitely do feel happy and proud that I’m still involved in this program and to see the level it’s going to right now, with all the success we’ve been having. It’s something very special to be involved still in. I’ll continue to do as much as I can to be a part of it and to push the limits.”
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 8, 2021
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press