There were no gold medals being handed out on the European shore of the Bosphorus in mid-September, but when the opening strains of the Champions League anthem echoed around Istanbul’s Vodafone Park, a moment as pivotal as almost any in a watershed 2021 played out for Canadian soccer.
For the first time, two male Canadian internationals were standing side by side in the same starting lineup to hear composer Tony Britten’s iconic twist on Handel’s Zadok the Priest.
Fresh off leading Besiktas to a first domestic league-and-cup double in 12 years back in May, Atiba Hutchinson and Cyle Larin were set to reap their non-tangible reward, representing the country of their birth in addition to their Turkish employer in the world’s most elite soccer competition.
While a 26-year-old Larin was breathing in that rarefied atmosphere for the first time, the 38-year-old Hutchinson was reconnecting with a tournament in which he had taken his own first steps back in 2006, when Larin was 11. And though a 2-1 Borussia Dortmund victory removed something of the shine from the occasion, the landmark moment was something that Hutchinson, who has been plying his trade in Europe since leaving Canada in 2003, could scarcely believe.
“Never. Never,” he says now. “I mean, I never thought that would have been possible. I didn’t think I would play with any Canadians throughout my career.
“It’s been great that we were able to win a championship together and now be representing Canada on the highest level, club wise, it’s a great thing to see.”
The pair of Bramptonians may be at opposite ends of their careers, but since Larin rejoined Besiktas after a loan spell at Belgian club Zulte Waregem for the 2019-20 season, their partnership has proved fruitful, for both club and country.
In addition to last season’s trophy haul, which included a dramatic final-day title win over fierce city rival Galatasaray on goal differential, Hutchinson, the Besiktas captain, rolled back the years, playing a total of 40 games for the team, almost all of them starts.
Meanwhile Larin has enjoyed something of a personal renaissance. The 2015 first overall pick in Major League Soccer played a total of 45 games in all competitions during the 2020-21 season, scoring 23 times. His nose for the net carried over to the national team, too, with the striker registering 12 tallies in 2021 while wearing the red shirt of Canada leading into Friday’s game against Costa Rica. That total represents the most goals by a Canadian man in a calendar year, more than doubling the eight he had scored heading into this year.
His total of 20 international goals leaves him just two shy of equalling Dwayne De Rosario’s national-team record. However, it’s not something that Larin chooses to focus on.
“I know it’s there because everyone keeps telling me that I’m close, but when I’m playing I don’t really keep track of it,” Larin says.
Despite missing Canada’s trio of World Cup qualifiers last month through injury, Hutchinson and Larin have since recovered and are in Canada’s squad for these two games, against Costa Rica on Friday and Mexico next Tuesday. Larin, in particular, has shown little signs of sluggishness in his return to the black-and-white-striped shirt of Besiktas.
He made history by scoring in his second UEFA Champions League start, in a 4-1 loss to Sporting Lisbon, becoming just the third Canadian to score in that competition, and the first since Hutchinson did so against Celtic in 2006. With that milestone in the books, Larin built on it by achieving permanent deity status among fans of the Black Eagles last month, scoring both goals in a come-from-behind derby win over Galatasaray.
While the Turkish Super Lig may seem some way from the bright lights of Manchester’s Old Trafford or Madrid’s Bernabeu, for now, the level of competition is precisely what Larin had in mind when he signed for the club from Orlando City in 2018.
“Expectation is always high here and I think that’s what makes it great,” he says. “You always have to be on your top level and if you want to play in Champions Leagues, if you want to play in the World Cup, you have to be on your top level all the time. The pressure, it’s good pressure and I embrace that and it pushes me to become better.”
Though Hutchinson says his Canadian teammate needed little selling on the club before he took the plunge, he says the Besiktas hierarchy did speak to him on a number of occasions before completing the transfer. Hutchinson, who moved to Turkey from Dutch club PSV Eindhoven in 2013, has become well established in Istanbul, calling it a “second home,” with all three of his children being born there.
Initially, he and Larin got together for weekly dinners, but Larin has long since found his feet in his new surroundings, living in a nice part of the city with his girlfriend and twin daughters.
“Atiba helped me a lot when I came down here and it did take me a little while, but I adapted well and now I’m here with my family and we’re all settled and enjoying it,” Larin says. “It’s a very nice place to live, I really like Istanbul and I like really love playing for Besiktas.”
The contracts for both players are up next summer, and neither will commit to playing for Besiktas beyond that. Hutchinson is mindful of his age, and is happy to play on one-year contracts while his body permits, while Larin is taking a wait-and-see approach, although playing for a team in the Champions League is “definitely where you want to play.”
With Larin often taking up a position on the left side of the front line, and Hutchinson playing just behind him, either in the centre of the park or on the left of the midfield, the pair have had the chance to develop a level of chemistry through daily training. That kind of understanding can have a carry-over effect to the national team, which will only help Canada’s quest to qualify for the World Cup.
“The chemistry is deeper between two guys that are in a club,” says John Herdman, the Canadian men’s national team coach. “They’ve battled together to win a championship with Besiktas so you know, when they’re on the field together, I know that they’re going to push to another level for each other.”
With Canada’s European contingent growing by the year – the country had a record four men competing in the Champions League this season – Hutchinson wonders if more teams might follow in the footsteps of Besiktas, making the Hutchinson-Larin axis something of a blueprint.
“Yeah, I think it is,” Hutchinson says. “It is something you see with a lot of other countries where there’s a number of players from one country, representing that country with a certain club, so yeah, it would be great to set the standard for us, for Canada, and hopefully, we can see more and more of that.”