SPORTS
09/06/2014 10:32 EDT | Updated 11/06/2014 05:59 EST

Canadian Atiba Hutchinson turns heads as he climbs the ladder in world soccer

ALLISTON, Ont. - Watch Atiba Hutchinson from afar and his spindly pipe-cleaner legs don't look like they can support his lean six-foot-one body.

But the veteran Canadian midfielder, who plays his club football for Besiktas in Turkey, moves with purpose on the soccer field. A deceptive shuffle turns into a timely tackle. He finds the ball and then a teammate.

At a recent Canada practice, he received the ball in traffic and fought his way through defenders until he began to tip over. But as he went down, he didn't lose possession. Instead he turned as he began to fall, protecting the ball until he could get his legs under him again to keep going.

"Atiba is our best player," says Canadian coach Benito Floro. "He is the best player in Besiktas."

Floro, whose club coaching resume includes Real Madrid, is not alone. After seeing Hutchinson in action in against Arsenal in a Champions League playoff, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was equally taken by the Canadian.

"The best player on Besiktas?" Wenger said during the post-game news conference. "I was impressed by Hutchinson."

Mention the comment and Hutchinson looks bashful.

"Some people have told me about it," he said. "It's a very good compliment coming from one of the best coaches out there.

"It doesn't hurt to have my name come out of his mouth."

Hutchinson has drawn praise for years now. After seeing him at the CONCACAF under-20 championship back in 2002, then Canadian senior coach Holger Osieck said: "I am actually convinced — and you know that I'm always pretty cautious in my predictions — that he has the tools to play first division football in Europe."

Now 31, Hutchinson has done just that, building his career carefully starting in Scandinavia with Osters and Helsingborg in Sweden and FC Copenhagen in Denmark.

"I really enjoyed it. That's really where everything got started for me," said the native of Brampton, Ont. "I just kind of took the right steps."

Rather than moving to a big league or club where he might languish on the bench, Hutchinson moved to clubs that would use him.

"That helped me a lot, just learning the game really, playing with the first team and getting a lot of games," he said. "I kind of look at it like climbing the ladder. That's exactly what I did. Every club I went to was a bit bigger and better than the previous club."

Hutchinson's next move was to the Netherlands and PSV Eindhoven in 2010, a stint that was interrupted by three surgeries to his left knee. He also was asked to spend time as a right back rather than central midfielder.

That aside, he saw his time there as valuable — playing at a big club and learning the Dutch way of football. Once again, his game improved.

When his contract ran out, he hoped a move to England might be next. What nothing suitable came up, he asked his agent to look at Turkey after hearing positive reports from teammates who had played there.

"They only had good things to say," he said. "Especially about Istanbul."

The two-time Canadian male player of the year has not regretted the 2013 move.

Life in Istanbul has been pleasant. Like all big cities, it has its sketchy sections but also clean, beautiful ones. Hutchinson and his girlfriend, a Danish-born woman of Iranian descent he met in Denmark, have enjoyed their time there.

Besiktas finished third in the league last season behind Istanbul rivals Fenerbahce and Galatasaray.

Turkish clubs are allowed eight imports with Besiktas' foreign legion also including Senegal striker Dembe Ba as well as players from Argentina, Austria, Brazil, Colombia, the Czech Republic and France.

Hutchinson sees it as a league on the rise.

The fans are more than passionate, backing the team wherever it plays.

"The support is amazing," Hutchinson said. "Even just being out on the streets, the way that they recognize you everywhere you go and the love that they give you. It's really amazing."

Despite the 10-hour flight from Istanbul to Turkey, Hutchinson remains committed to the Canadian cause. He is in line to earn his 68th cap Tuesday when Canada entertains Jamaica at BMO Field in Toronto.

"Every chance I get to play for Canada, I will definitely be there," he said.

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