Thursday, November 22, 2007

WE People – Atiba Hutchinson - The Future of Canadian Soccer

By Stacey Marie Robinson

After traveling over 6,000 kilometres from Copenhagen to Toronto, Atiba Hutchinson anticipated a warmer reception from Canadian soccer fans at the BMO Field. The stadium that was regularly filled with 20,000 supporters during the FIFA U-20 World Cup this summer, only had a fraction of viewers when the Canadian national team challenged Costa Rica to a friendly match on September 11. The 9,300 spectators were dressed in black and noticeably somber, reminding Hutchinson and his teammates that the game going on with Canadian soccer was much larger than the one being played on the field.

With the recent resignation of the Canadian Soccer Association (CSA) President, Colin Linford, the drama has been evident to all. In fact, Toronto FC fans and supporters of the Voyageurs soccer club would like the entire governing body of the CSA replaced, to ensure that the national team has a chance at the World Cup in 2010. Black t-shirts, sported proudly at the game, read: “Sack the CSA,” “Support Our National Teams,” and “Canadian Soccer Deserves Better.”

The national team is currently ranked 53rd in the world, with its first and only FIFA World Cup appearance in 1986. They have, however, had success in the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) winning the Gold Cup in 2000, and gaining a third place finish in 2002. Under the leadership of head coach Dale Mitchell, they have also made the semi-finals of the 2007 CONCACAF Gold Cup.

Hutchinson reflected on his opportunity to play in Toronto -- the first home game for the national team in 7 years.

“I was expecting a better response, for my first game in Toronto,” said Hutchinson, surprised by the black-wearing crowd. “It’s nice to play at home, but it could have been a better experience. At the end of the day, it’s a good feeling to be home, and I was still happy to be out there.”

The game ended in a draw with Canada tying Costa Rica 1-1, with the Canadian goal scored by Dwayne De Rosario. By the following evening, Hutchinson, who succumbed to an ankle injury during the first half of the match, would return to Copenhagen.

Hutchinson, 24, started his career in his hometown of Brampton with the Braves, continuing to play with the York Region Shooters, the Toronto Lynx, and then across the Atlantic to Sweeden’s Osters IF and Helsingborgs IF. Along with playing for the Canadian men’s national team, the midfielder also represented his country in the Men’s Olympic U-23 and Men’s Youth U-20. In January 2006, he settled in Denmark with the F.C. Copenhagen in the Danish Superliga, for 4.5 years.

“Denmark is a nice place; very friendly;” said Hutchinson of his new home. “It’s a different lifestyle though, very laid back and easy going, so it was easy to adjust to.” After a slow start, Hutchinson adapted well to the country, and enjoys the camaraderie of his teammates, mainly Englishmen.

While his love for soccer has managed to follow him around the world, unfortunately the joys of his Trinidadian culture are nowhere to be found, once he touches down in Denmark. Hutchinson, who hasn’t been able to attend Caribana festivities in at least five years, said he often longs for West Indian people, flavours and customs that were always accessible growing up in Toronto.

“I miss it more than I can even describe,” he said, explaining his gratitude for the times his mother is able to visit him, and cook his favourite dishes.

This is the reality for many of Canada’s soccer stars who travel abroad for professional opportunities, rarely having the chance to enjoy the game in their own country.

Although he hopes to one day play in England, following the footsteps of Trinidad’s Dwight Yorke, a player he has always admired, Hutchinson believes that he will one day come home. “I do want to eventually come back to live in Canada,” he said. “I would like to retire here.”

Many fans of Hutchinson and Canadian soccer also hope that sooner than later, the Canadian national team will develop a strong enough foundation to support athletes like Hutchinson and countless others who will also benefit from a tight national system and generous internal maintainance. It is the dream of many that Canada’s soccer stars will one day find it lucrative to simply, stay in Canada.

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