DOHA, Qatar - Australia striker Jason Cummings admits he doesn't have the best of memories but, even taking that into account, he doesn't have many long-lasting recollections of the FIFA World Cup from when he was growing up. He spent his childhood in Scotland, who last qualified for the tournament in 1998, when he was not yet 3 years old back, so perhaps that is understandable. Nonetheless, as he prepares to try to make memories with the Socceroos in Qatar -- he is eligible to represent Australia as the land of his mother -- the 27-year-old isn't incapable of reminiscing about football's biggest event.
Sitting under the shade of a tree at the Socceroos' training base at the Aspire Academy, Cummings fondly recalls watching Ronaldo and Brazil sweep all before them in the 2002 FIFA World Cup, and the changing of the guard that occurred as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo entered the scene. More broadly, there was an appreciation of the titanic nature, or beauty, as he put it, of the big players coming together on the big stage.
"I think my favourite [tournament] was probably the South African one," Cummings tells ESPN. "That was proper passion. The fans that were there, it's different. [The World Cup is] just the best. It's the best tournament in the world, the best time for football fans and players. So to be a part of it now... it's just overwhelming."
Cummings may be in a minority with happy memories of the colour, the drama, and the excitement of the 2010 FIFA World Cup -- blame the constant sound of vuvuzelas blasting and a controversial Jabulani match ball -- but few would argue South Africa wasn't a tournament dripping in authenticity and goodwill. So perhaps it's no surprise that it's a favourite of Cummings, for the Central Coast Mariners star displays an unmistakable air of genuineness. Valiant attempts are made to uphold the trained veneer that all professional footballers -- media trained to within an inch of their lives -- are expected to maintain in public, but his humour and affability shine through under the Aspire shade.
When hearing how some Australian fans have taken up the rallying cry that opening opponents France may field Kylian Mbappe and Ballon d'Or winner Karim Benzema in their squad but the Socceroos have the "Cumdog" -- a nickname that has taken on a life of its own since he arrived in Australia -- he can't help but give a wry grin and observe cheekily that it "makes sense". The news that some supporters are headed to Doha with custom Socceroos jerseys emblazoned with "Cumdog" and "69" emblazoned on the back attracts bemused laughter and hope that they have a good time.
"I'm active on social media," he says. "I do see a lot of things and it makes me happy that the Australian fans, that they've taken to me. They like my personality and my character. And it's because they can appreciate what I can do on the pitch as well. You know when it comes to serious business on the pitch, they know that I'll give 110%. I love the love that they give me."
It's impossible to talk to Cummings and not come away with the impression that he possesses a deep gratitude and appreciation for Australia, despite his relatively short time living there, and for what landing in the country has done for him personally and professionally. There's a sincere appreciation for the friends he has made at the Mariners, as well as coach Nick Montgomery and the staff who have brought him in, and a genuine love for the broader footballing public that has fallen so quickly for his eclectic mix of personality and irrepressible skill on the pitch.
When he arrived Down Under earlier this year after a life and career spent entirely in Britain, signing with the Mariners during the January transfer window, external perceptions were that he had effectively been run out of Scotland after one too many slip-ups and off-field incidents. Reports that former side Dundee had moved to terminate his contract after a boozy night at an event the day before training -- the booziness of which Cummings strenuously denies -- and his landing with an A-League Men club famous for its small resources and low wage bill suggested he didn't have many other options than one last throw of the dice on the other side of the planet.
And maybe he didn't.
But Mariners coach Montgomery nevertheless saw value; placing calls and messages to trusted sources in Britain to vouch for the jester-striker and his temperament, and backing his club's culture to integrate what he saw as a misinterpreted character. Cummings might have been seen as more of a meme than a footballer by the broader public, but the Mariners believed they were getting a difference-maker and leader.
Since taking that chance, Cummings has gone neck and neck with Melbourne City striker Jamie Maclaren as Australia's most in-form attacker. Across 26 games in all competitions with the Mariners, he has scored 12 goals and registered nine assists in a team increasingly regarded as the A-League's great entertainers: a rag-tag group of misfits, journeymen and youngsters thrown to the fire that somehow manages to keep taking it to the competition's entrenched gentry.
Now he's at a World Cup with Australia and, though born in Edinburgh and a representative of Scotland at the junior international level and even two senior friendlies, there can be no doubt that Cummings holds a deep emotional investment in his new home and the Socceroos.
He reflects to ESPN about "the love and the support that [Australia's fans] have got for the national team".
"You know, it's a lot different for me and Scotland," he said. "With the media and the fans. In Scotland, I feel like they're a lot more on their back. They don't praise [the national team] as much, they don't give them credit. And to be fair to Australians, they bring them up you know, they support them and you know when you're winning and you're doing well for them, it's amazing.
"Coming over this year and living in Australia, my good mates are Australian, I've learned a lot. It's a proud moment for me to be here."
Perhaps there's some serendipity that Cummings, who is in a battle with Mitchell Duke and Maclaren for the privilege of leading the line in the Socceroos' opening World Cup fixture against France, holds South Africa 2010 as his favourite tournament. Twelve years ago, Les Blues, despite having made the final four years prior, famously collapsed and finished bottom of Group A with just a single point to their name; losses to Mexico and especiallly the hosts were almighty upsets no matter what the discontent surrounding the French side.
This time around, Didier Deschamps' side will enter the tournament as defending champions and with a more harmonious dressing room -- albeit not one without its troubles - but they have sustained a series of injuries and fitness concerns, including the absence of Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kanté.
And while the Socceroos, on paper, shouldn't be able to lay a glove on the French when they meet at Al Janoub Stadium, Cummings "definitely" believes that they can stun the world.
"We will be going into the game to win the game, same way every match that we have," he tells ESPN. "It's 90 minutes, it's a game of football. You never know what can happen, especially when it's a one-off game in the World Cup.
"It's gonna be good, it's gonna be fun, it's going to be a great experience for everyone. But we're here for a reason, and that is to win games and go as far as we can in this tournament; so we'll be going into that game pumped up and ready to beat them."