By Euan McCabe
Part two of selected extracts from the book The World Cup Baby
It is absolutely essential to the successful functioning of this book to understand that I am not ordinarily an optimistic person.
I once saw the Curriculum Vitae of a genuine optimist.
How did I know it belonged to an optimist when the natural function of every effective CV ever assembled must surely be to portray optimism?
Even the most incompetent employer would panic if confronted with a CV life goal that stated: To be persistently miserable, obstructive and cynical. I have never witnessed such a statement in any CV, but know plenty of people who, simply in the interests of honesty, would need to include something along those lines.
But a lathered and pretentious sub-title like ‘Life Goal’ is certainly a giveaway to an underlying swell of optimism. And the CV in question included not just that heading, but managed to follow it up with a sentence of such violent effusiveness that it physically propelled my breakfast upwards from my stomach into my unsuspecting windpipe.
I will get it out of the way quickly: To make the world a better place.
What disturbed me most was not so much the belief in such a thought, but the flagrant willingness to air it in a public place.
This person is doomed to never experience the refreshing breeze of pessimism upon his rosy little cheeks. I mean, for goodness sake, of the more than six billion people alive today, I would regard just two worthy of claiming achievement of this outrageously demanding and most elusive of goals: Nelson Mandela and Mikhail Gorbachev. And neither set out with this target in mind. Mandela initially desired only to free his people, whilst poor old Mikhail unintentionally oversaw the collapse of the system he cherished and now, as a result, is so despised in his homeland that he is forced to live out his final years as a disgruntled hermit.
Put simply: making the world a better place is a one in 3,000,000,000 long shot. And even then, you will not be guaranteed a sense of fulfilment.
People such as the perpetrator of this overt CV terrify me. These exponents of Fundamental Optimism are potentially dangerous to the overall safety and equilibrium of the world. They are zealots who lack only a colourful bandanna and a sub-machine gun slung threateningly over their shoulder; factors which allow them to pass through airport security posts unchallenged and to subversively grease their way up the corporate ladders of today’s disturbingly Politically Correct society. And they also lack the single most defining attribute that separates man from the animal kingdom – a sense of humour. Sure, they pretend to have one, but it is usually so appallingly bad that any normal person can instantly see through their ruse.
Far trustworthier, I say, is a cautious pessimism. And it is the natural duty of all fair-minded cynics everywhere to be constantly vigilant, challenging Fundamental Optimists wherever they choose to lay down their noxious ponds of obtrusive slime.
Experts of the human condition still argue as to whether an evil person is born with a special gene or is subsequently conditioned by environment. But what about the pessimist or the cynic? Of which I am both. And proud of it.
But was I born this way, or have circumstances gradually conditioned me to react with such vigorous aversion to almost anything sanguine?
I once made a premeditated but ill-fated attempted to cross over to the other side. This doomed attempt to adjust my patterned conditioning and lift my thoughts and feelings was made in a futile search for optimism. And it was inspired by an unusual source: the incessant, mindless blathering of that strange breed proliferating early morning radio. If these people could manage to be so fuckin’ irritating that early in the morning, then I concluded that anybody, if they put their mind to it, could convince himself or herself to be positive about almost anything and everything.
My problem with optimism transpired to be a fairly simple one: it made me miserable. I was far happier and felt much more secure once safely returned to my natural mindset.
And this short-lived experiment only served to prove what I had suspected all along – that the chasm between pessimism and optimism is insurmountable for the great majority of us. Whatever the reasons for first landing in either camp, once there, the condition becomes so deeply ingrained it becomes almost impossible to then cross over.
To be honest, old-fashioned jealously has undoubtedly played some part in shaping my outlook. Optimism is, after all, largely a state of mind driven by confidence and the desire to succeed. Neither has ventured much into my neighbourhood, leaving me feeling bitter over the perceived injustice of those bounding, self-confident twats that always pull the good-looking chicks and land the jobs with uncapped expense accounts.
But there are some rare examples of people able to successfully transverse both worlds.
These people dwell in a strange state of flux, like those fascinating living organisms that exist somewhere in between the plant and animal kingdoms, or those people who manage to drift between both male and female behaviour with such graceful ease.
The late Brian Clough was a classic example of the Optimistic Cynic. Old Big Head was an exceptional man who lifted my childhood with his acerbic charm and brilliant presence. Only a supremely optimistic man could achieve what he did – the quaintly improbable double of steering Nottingham Forest to European success and making the green sweat top fashionable. But show him the CV mentioned earlier and you would have been assured of a response pock-marked with little symbols such as #@!% and *. He was my preferred kind of optimist. A cynical one.
God bless him.
And then shift over.
The melodramatic, fads, trends, popular movements, hype. All possess this innate ability to attack my nervous system, to incite heavy sighs and drooping shoulders, to send me scurrying anxiously for the nearest exit.
What fascinates me most about the World Cup is the way it somehow neutralises these processes. It possesses a unique ability to bring my defences down.
Size, unity, popularity, pretentiousness. Even FIFA. None of this matters any more. I even search out my copy of ‘The Cup of Life’ and begin gushing enthusiastically over the talents of Ricky Martin. That is how chronic it can get.
Yes, involuntarily, for one month every four years, the World Cup invites optimism into my life.
But, Ricky Martin aside, it is not pure or delusional optimism. Not ‘make the world a better place’ optimism. But rather, a strain of optimism that allows me to enthusiastically embrace the entire concept: the good, the bad and the ugly.
Any sycophant could write about the uplifting effect of the World Cup on the lives of ordinary people around the world. FIFA regularly does. No, the purpose of this book is to reveal the consuming power of the event on those of us less inclined to be sucked in or find favour with the usual kind of ‘Beautiful Game’ or ‘For the Good of the Game’ pap peddled out of Zurich. The World Cup is about much more than ‘uniting the globe’, ‘entertainment’, ‘fair play’ or the ‘feel-good-factor’. In fact, such is the rabid complexity, much of the World Cup’s authentic meaning is lost on your average optimist. They become bit-part players, unable to grasp or appreciate its full scope. It actually provides far more ammunition for cynics to work with, which is just fine by this one enjoying his short vacation. It makes for a more interesting event and is further evidence of its power to divide as equally as it unites.
I know, I know – yawn – that as the flagship of the game it should strive to represent the highest ideals of football, indeed of mankind. That is all very well. In theory. But in my view, it is best to leave the Olympic Games to strain under the weight of such onerous expectation. After all, the modern Olympic movement was built on and continues to be underpinned by such lofty ideals.
I choose to celebrate the World Cup because it represents all aspects of life. It has long since transcended sport to become an event that draws it real strength from people. Few events of any description, let alone sport, are so able to portray the wondrous and complex diversity of life on this planet.
Life can be striking, uplifting and inspiring, but it can be as equally cruel, turgid and horrible. And whilst the World Cup tournament may be the bastard baby of the cartel that is FIFA, the manipulated child of television networks or apparel companies, or a convenient punching bag for hooligans or political movements, it also swanks with a perversely fascinating mixture of beauty and ugliness, affection and hatred, artistry and deception, despair and celebration, triumph and tragedy. Down on the pitch, up in the stands, and out in the streets of the world.
Nothing is left uninvited.
This is why it enthrals me so.
Follow Euan on Twitter