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Guest column: Canisius coach Dermot McGrane on why the World Cup is so special

Canisius men's soccer coach Dermot McGrane will be serving as a guest correspondent for The Buffalo News during the World Cup. A two-time Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year, McGrane has been at Canisius since 2011 after nine years as coach at Niagara. McGrane is originally from Leicester, England, and has been coaching at U.S. colleges since 1995. 

I remember four years ago, sitting at an establishment on Hertel Avenue – which became known as “soccer central” – basking in the chants of “I believe that we will win” while cheering on Team USA in the World Cup.

So, what will it be like this year with the U.S. having failed to qualify for soccer’s most prestigious tournament and the world's biggest sporting event? Will every bar on Hertel Avenue again be packed with fans? Will 10,000 people show up at Canalside to watch a game being displayed on a big screen? Maybe not, but there are still many good reasons to tune in when games get underway Thursday morning.

Like the Olympics, the World Cup only comes around every four years, which is one of the reasons it is so special. It starts out with 209 countries competing, and after two years of qualifying games, we end up with the top 32 teams in the world. It is incredibly difficult to qualify for the finals.

The English Premier League and the Champions League have become immensely popular in the U.S., and many of the stars will be showcasing their talents for their home country.  Many fans whose national team failed to qualify will cheer for the home countries of the star players on their favorite club teams.

The U.S. isn’t alone; traditional powerhouses such as Italy and the Netherlands failed to qualify this year as well. We live in the biggest melting pot in the world, so most people can trace some part of their heritage to a country competing in the Cup. Go out anywhere on St. Patrick’s Day and you quickly learn everyone is at least one-eighth Irish.

It is rare to have two generational talents in the World Cup at the same time, but this year, fans will have the chance to see Argentina’s Lionel Messi and Portugal’s Ronaldo both competing on quality teams that I believe will go far in the tournament. You also can add Neymar into the conversation, as his Brazilian team will look to avenge the 7-1 drubbing it received from Germany in the 2014 World Cup semifinal round.

Outside of the traditional powerhouse countries, you also have the Cinderella stories if you are looking for an underdog.

An underdog to look out for is Iceland. The team qualified for the tournament after a great showing in the European Finals two years ago.  The total population of Iceland is 335,000. To put this in perspective, the population of Buffalo is 260,000. Make sure to watch how Iceland’s fans support their team during the game. Their energy is electric.

Egypt is returning to the World Cup for the first time in 27 years, and the team is led by Liverpool FC’s Mohamed Salah. Salah led the EPL in scoring this year, and I believe Egypt also will be an exciting team to watch.

Like any sport, soccer has trends in the way it is played. Many of the sport's critics complain about a lack of scoring, but over the past 10 years, we have seen a much more attacking style of play, resulting in more goals. Two of the tournament's favorites – Germany and Belgium – averaged better than four goals a game as they tore through the qualifying stages en route to this year’s tournament.

The games are being played in Russia, a nation that experienced a fair share of glitches when it hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics. More than a million fans from around the globe are about to descend on Russia, so the hope is that the host nation is better prepared for this event. It also will be a nice change to hear Russia mentioned in the news for something other than politics.

The tournament will last for 30 days, with two or three games being played each day for the first two weeks. Soccer fanatics like myself will try to watch every game, but the time difference will force many to set their DVRs to watch the games in the evening. You do not have to be a big fan of the sport to enjoy the World Cup. Just think how many people enjoy March Madness every spring after barely watching a college basketball game all winter.

The World Cup is a fantastic event played once every four years, so I hope the Western New York community will enjoy this year’s edition.

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