Best World Cup ever! Or is it? Why we should beware the deception of enthusiasm

Is being wary of enthusiasm just intellectual masochism, or are we missing out on a powerful force for good in the world?

Brazil fans celebrating their team's success. Photo: Getty
Brazil fans celebrating their team's success. Photo: Getty

I have been enjoying this World Cup greatly – the most exciting in three decades, more goals than at any tournament since 1970, a high standard of good technical, and largely competitive, football. There are only four games to go, and only four teams remain, but I wonder: has quality tailed off at an inopportune moment, much as it did in USA 94, when the tournament became a great deal less exciting once the knock-out stages came along? That may have already happened, with four rather sub-par games in last weekend’s quarter-finals. Still, with four of the strongest sides remaining in the tournament, chances of a strong finale are high. To be honest though, I am slightly suspicious of my own enthusiasm (and that of others). I wonder if we view the tournament with a bit of distance will it all look less rosy. If we watch the games again, stripped of the euphoria of the accumulated excitement, will we be a bit more objective and critical and find it wasn’t quite as good as we remember it?

Football fans and pundits are often aware of this. They caution against clubs imprudently signing players on the strength of performances over two to three weeks of a tournament. This is sometimes known as “the Poborsky effect”, in reference to Alex Ferguson’s headhunting the be-mulleted Czech winger Karel Poborsky after his country’s march to the final of Euro 96. Poborsky was a decent enough player but, unfortunately, never showed it at Old Trafford. He has since become a byword for the deceptive nature of tournament performances. Enjoyment of the football combined with the discovery of previous unknown players can intoxicate oneself when you watch the World Cup or similar summer tournaments. Of course, things have changed greatly since 1996, and there are few uncharted waters left in football. Liverpool are reported to be interested in teenage Belgian prospect Divock Origi, who has impressed in this World Cup, but one imagines they are basing their bid on a lot more than a few cursory glances at Belgium’s (mostly none too thrilling) matches. You would expect a club to put slightly more research into a potential multi-million pound investment, not least because Lille, where Origi currently plays, is not exactly a place cut off from the outside world. Yet, the naysayers continue to warn against any hasty purchases at this time.

They have a point. Enthusiasm, while it is a vital motor in itself, is also prone to clouding one’s judgement. When one gets caught up in something, one can often be given to saying or doing things rashly. You might recall a couple of years back, the viral video “Stop Kony”, which was mounted by an American charity, Invisible Children, to “raise awareness” about the crimes of Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda. The 30-minute video was a huge success, being viewed (at least in part) over 120 million times, and allowed Invisible Children to shift a hefty number of its $30 “action kits”, the proceeds of which no doubt went towards the making of further viral super-productions. After the initial blaze of enthusiasm and outrage at Kony’s misdeeds, the campaign came in for some sharp criticism, from rival NGOs, political commentators and, ultimately, those very Ugandans who were themselves victims of the LRA.

Invisible Children, was accused of naivety, arrogance, simplifying the facts, of dangerously and inadvertently encouraging a Kony cult, and, most notably, of an imperialistic mindset, of knowing what was best for their helpless African subjects. One of the more persuasive voices of dissent against “Kony 2012” was the Nigerian novelist Teju Cole, who responded in a number of messages on Twitter (which were later developed into a longer piece). Pinning Invisible Children as part of the same “White Saviour Complex” as the New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, Bono and economist Jeffrey Sachs, Cole astutely noted the destructive urges that are driven by what, on the face of it, ought to be a positive quality:

The banality of evil transmutes into the banality of sentimentality. The world is nothing but a problem to be solved by enthusiasm. 

Literary types might recognise in this one of the more enduring archetypes of 20th century fiction – Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, from the 1955 novel of the same name. The figure in Greene’s novel was an idealistic young undercover CIA agent in late colonial Indochina whose enthusiasm masks a darker, more Machiavellian intent, an intent which would later be embodied in the US’s disastrous imperial war in South-East Asia. It has since become a common, if often unnamed, trope in both geopolitical discourse and popular culture.

The attitude of Greene and Cole towards enthusiasm has its antecedents in the former British Prime Minister Arthur James Balfour, who remarked in a letter in 1891 that “it is unfortunate, considering that enthusiasm moves the world, that so few enthusiasts can be trusted to speak the truth”. (Palestinians might smile bitterly at such an invoking of trust by a man who played such a key role in selling off their homeland, but that is another matter). Balfour’s words might seem a bit harsh but we have probably all found ourselves prey, at least once, to a temporary lapse in judgement as we got caught up in a Twitter or Facebook cycle of outrage or admiration, and then checked ourselves when exposed to a less excited counterpoint. And what is collective outrage but a negatively-channelled form of enthusiasm?

Our critical faculties can also be numbed by the pleasures of enthusiasm. Personally, I have returned to numerous films or books that first time around I admired to the point of never shutting up about them, only to find them a great deal wanting when they are shorn of the initial thrill of discovery. Off the top of my head, I can list The Shawshank Redemption, Saving Private Ryan, Jim Jarmusch’s Night on Earth and Catcher in the Rye as works that didn’t look quite so good at second glance. There are, no doubt, dozens more, just as there are works for which the inverse holds – films or books that either annoyed or dismayed me when I first saw or read them but which burrowed their way into my mind and which some time later I came to recognise as great. Nowadays, when watching or reading (or listening to) something for the first time, I tend to be distrustful of liking it too much, lest the sugar rush of enthusiasm cloud my judgement. Most people would just say that that is intellectual masochism typical of critics. There is something to be said for that but neither is a little self-imposed distance a bad thing when deciding whether a work of art is good or not.

One probably shouldn’t be too hard on enthusiasm, something which clearly has its more constructive outlets too (it may well be that, as Emerson said, “nothing great was ever created without enthusiasm”). It is however worth meditating upon what happens to our capacity for evaluation when we drink from its cup. Even at this World Cup of such boundless excitement the critics are already looming to say it’s not all that. The US team went home with their heads held high following a thrilling extra-time defeat to Divock Origi’s Belgium. They also won many fans, having been involved in two other exciting matches, against Portugal and Ghana. Up stepped sidelined US striker Landon Donovan to say that the Americans had in fact performed poorly in three out of their four games and that they had demonstrated no progress in the way they played against stronger nations. It’s an unpopular though not unpersuasive opinion, even if many would point out that the critical distance afforded Donovan probably had a lot to do with his being left off Jürgen Klinsmann’s squad for Brazil.