2022 Qatar World Cup: Varsity Blues soccer coach & captain discuss the Greatest Show on Earth

A soccer ball on a soccer field (image by Flickr user Jernej Furman)

The 22 edition of the FIFA World Cup, the world’s biggest sporting event, kicked off this weekend in Qatar with 32 teams set to compete across 64 matches. The Canadian men’s team qualified for the World Cup just for the second time in the nation’s history and the first since 1986 - a 36-year wait ended by coach John Herdman and his young team. 

The day before the match that broke the spell, the University of Toronto Varsity Blues men’s soccer team trained with the national team at BMO field, “an experience the boys will never forget,” according to Ilya Orlov, head coach of the Blues soccer team. We caught up with Orlov and Jacob Maurutto-Robinson, the team’s captain, to chat about Canada’s chances, the main contenders, dark horses and more …

How do you think Canada will do at the 2022 World Cup?

Ilya Orlov: It is very difficult to predict, as there are so many factors that go into a short tournament. They have a very tough group with Belgium and Croatia, but Morocco also has top players, playing on some of the world’s best teams. Having said that, Canada is on a high now after finishing first in CONCACAF Qualifying, they have top players who are playing in big European clubs and they have a very good coach in John Herdman. Those are all indications that Canada will perform well and then we will see how the results go. Getting to the last 16 would be a massive achievement.

What players on team Canada will you be betting on to pull the team forward? In other words, who are Canada’s best players?

: I think what makes this team strong is not one or two players but the collective team. Football is a team sport so the team is more important than one individual and Canada’s team signifies that. However, if we are pointing to some of the top players then of course we have to mention Alphonso Davies, Jonathan David, Cyle Larin and Stephen Eustáquio. All those players are playing in top-level European clubs. You cannot forget the MLS players though. I would not be surprised if one or two of them have an outstanding World Cup.

Canada has already won one title — it has the oldest player in captain Atiba Hutchinson who will be playing in his first World Cup just a couple months shy of his 40th birthday. But, he won’t be the only old-timer. Portuguese Pepe is also 39 — and, of course, Messi (35) and Ronaldo (37) will be taking another run at the trophy. How do you account for the life of active players getting longer, not just in soccer?

: The longevity of players is extending and more players are playing at the top level while getting older. This is due to the advancement of science in football and education coming into the football world. Nutrition, recovery strategies, periodization, injury preventions, etc. are all important to help players extend their careers. Players are also more professional themselves and understand how to take care of their bodies better than before. I see this trend of players playing into their later 30s continuing into the future.

How do you feel about Video Assistant Referee technology? How has it improved soccer - or made it worse? 

IO: It is controversial as football is the most traditional sport in the world and traditions are hard to break. The data is there that VAR has helped with getting more big decisions correct. Other sports use it so it was time for the football world to catch up. The game is played at such a fast speed now that referees sometime aren't able to make the right call on the field due to their positioning, fatigue and stress of a big match. Who wants to lose a World Cup because of wrong decision?  Therefore, I am in big favor of VAR.

World Cups are normally held in the summer, but because of the scorching temperatures in Qatar, this Cup was ushered into the winter conflicting with some of the world best leagues schedules. Do you think that will have any effect on their performance? 

I think having the World Cup at this time may help the players. Players playing in Europe are all tired after a long season and then they have to play a World Cup in the summer with a three-week camp before the tournament. This negatively affects performance. This World Cup will be in the middle of the season so the players will be more fresh. I am sure fans want to see a World Cup in the summer but this would not be possible with summer heat in Qatar.

During World Cups, it’s common to see Canadians cheering for the country from which they or their parents or grandparents immigrated. With Canada qualifying for the Cup, Canadians will finally have a chance to cheer for – Canada, too. How will this reflect on the nation? Could we have another case of Raptormania, with the whole country coming together to support the team? Will it have an impact on more kids taking up soccer?

I hope so!  We have to unite as a country to back out National Team. This will depend on the performance of the team of course, as well. If they can get good results and get out of the group, I see the whole country coming together. My hope is that during the World Cup, the average fan and non-soccer fan really become supporters of the team and the sport. We are hosting the 2026 World Cup so this will be a great opportunity to garner support. We need to become a football nation and having everyone coming together will be amazing to see.

Who are the main contenders to win this cup?

Jacob Maurutto-Robinson: The five teams that are mostly likely to win the tournament are Argentina, Brazil, France, England and Portugal.

Who are the world’s top players in this cup?

JMR: In terms of the top keepers, I would put it between the Belgian Thibaut Courtois and Brazilian Allisson Becker. Defenders are Ruben Dias, Jao Cancelo, Marquinhos, Dayot Upamecano and Virgil van Dijk. Midfielders are Kevin De Bruyne, Frankie de Jong, Jude Bellingham, Pedri and Luka Modric. Attackers Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Lewandowski, Neymar, Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe. 

Who are the dark horse nations?

JMR: My five dark horse nations are Canada, Serbia, Poland, Denmark and Iran. 

What matchups are you most looking forward to?

JMR: The five matchups I am most looking forward to in the group stage are Canada vs Belgium, Germany vs Spain, Argentina vs Mexico, England vs USA and Portugal vs Uruguay.