How 'the Octopus' Atiba Hutchinson has become an icon at Besiktas
In Istanbul, they call him ‘Spiderman’, ‘Perfect Machine’, or sometimes ‘The Octopus’. Atiba Hutchinson’s first name does sound a little similar to the Turkish word for the latter creature, Ahtapot, but watch the midfielder in action for Besiktas and you will soon understand that his moniker has to do with more than just pronunciation.
Canadian soccer fans have long been familiar with those long, spindly legs that stretch out to steal balls away from opponents and snatch them back under his personal control. Hutchinson has been capped 77 times by his country and yet even now, at 33 years old, he is winning over new admirers in Europe.
His 2013 move to Turkey was questioned by supporters back home, who had hoped to see him fulfil his ambition of playing in England or Germany. The reality was that, after an up-and-down three years in which he often played right-back for PSV, his services were not quite in the demand that they should have been.
The Premier League and Bundesliga’s loss, though, has been Besiktas’s gain. Hutchinson was instrumental last season in the team’s run to a first Turkish Super Lig title for seven years.
Relentlessly accurate with his passing - he led the division with a 92.7 percent completion rate, and has raised the bar even further this season, to 95 percent - and instrumental in breaking up attacks from his deep-lying midfield position, he also displayed rare discipline.
From the start of 2015 through to the 15th of October this year, he went an astonishing 54 Super Lig games without a collecting a yellow card.
No wonder smitten fans have been dedicating artwork to Hutchinson and scrawling his name across local election ballot papers.
His manager, Senol Gunes, rewarded him with the captain’s armband.
When West Ham finally did come calling this summer - at the behest of Slaven Bilic, who coached Hutchinson at Besiktas between 2013 and 2015 - the Turkish club told them to get stuffed. Why should Besiktas let go of him now, while preparing for its first run at the Champions League group stage this decade? Indeed, why should he want to miss out on that opportunity himself?
Speaking to the Canadian Press back in 2014, Hutchinson explained his decision to persist with the road less travelled in Europe - in a career that had taken him from Oster and Helsingborg in Sweden, on to FC Copenhagen in Denmark, PSV and finally Besiktas - by saying: "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."
West Ham might have represented a bigger club than Besiktas - certainly a richer one - but the Hammers could not offer him the grandest stage that European football has to offer. Hutchinson’s only previous taste of the Champions League proper (he was involved in failed qualifying runs on a few occasions) was with Copenhagen a decade ago.
He has not looked out of place in the competition. To the contrary, after draws against Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv, Hutchinson was arguably the single most influential player in helping his team to take four points from two games against Napoli - raising the Turkish side to within one of the group leader.
Away at the Stadio San Paolo he made a game-leading five interceptions, cutting the supply to Dries Mertens, Lorenzo Insigne and Jose Callejon and helping his team to a 3-2 upset win. Back at home, he missed a golden opportunity - crashing a shot against the post from close range - but made up for it by holding his ground and maintaining his accuracy on a day when his midfield partner, Gokhan Inler, could not.
Gazzetta dello Sport named him as Besiktas’s man of the match, saying he had: "directed a good film - especially when you consider he was missing an assistant director. Every ball went through him, and he messed up very few."
As a result, Besiktas holds its Champions League destiny in its own hands. Beat Benfica at home on Wednesday, and it will jump to at least second place.
We can expect the Turkish champion to take the game to its opponent, as Besiktas has consistently sought to do under Gunes. “Slaven Bilic was a little more defensive," said Hutchinson in a recent interview with Socrates magazine in Turkey. "He wanted to score with counter attacks. But Senol Gunes has an approach that wants to go forward and score directly.
"He wants us to play very fast."
That Besiktas is able to do so owes much to the control that Hutchinson exerts from the centre of the park. Against Adanaspor on Saturday he attempted 111 passes, and found his target with 108.
Sometimes it can be hard to believe that this Octopus really does only have two legs.
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