It is the match no one wants to play. And yet they have to, in front of a packed house, and a television audience that, despite the fatigue, uses it as a cheer-up. Of all the matches, in all the sports across all the tournaments in the world, it is the FIFA World Cup third place play-off game that gets the most abuse. The reputation is hardly surprising. Look at the premise of the game itself: two teams, whose chance to play the greatest game of all was snatched away from them, kick off again instead of going home.
In the aftermath of his side’s victory over the home side in the third place play-off at the 2014 World Cup, the Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal didn’t bite his lip about how he felt appearing for the consolation prize.
“This match should never be played. I've been saying that for 10 years; it's unfair,” he started off, “The worst thing is that there is a chance you are going to lose twice in a row. And in a tournament in which you have played so marvellously well you go home as a loser.”
Also Read | Will France Play for Legacy or the Cup in the Final vs Croatia?
Imagine Brazil then, the hosts, who were humbled 7-1 by Germany 7-1 their semi-final, and then never quite recovered mentally for the game against the Dutch – they lost 3-0.
The most maligned match of the World Cup could hardly have been more entertaining though. By the time this comes around, the two teams involved could hardly be bothered about defence. Where finals have been about tight defending, nerves on the edge, and low scoreline, third place play-offs are high-scoring freebies.
It feels almost like a boxer behind on the cards going out for the final round, swinging haymakers, hoping for one to connect. Catch one right, and there’s a great feel-good roar that will envelope him. And if you miss… well, you were losing anyway.
Consider the statistics: the last four finals have produced a grand total of six goals. The last four third place play-offs? 17!
Also Read | Oscar Tabarez: A School Teacher’s Revolution Which Changed Uruguayan Football
And more often than not, these goals come early. Of the three fastest goals at a World Cup, two have come in third place play-offs. The third fastest was in the first third place play-off ever (what an omen), Germany scoring 24 seconds into the game against Austria in 1934. And the fastest came when Hakan Sukur produced a superbly poached finish in Turkey’s play-off against South Korea in 2002.
Between those two came wonder strikes and classic career enders: Roberto Baggio stripping Peter Shilton in the latter’s final international to score the winner in 1990; Just Fontaine scoring four in a 6-3 thrashing in 1958 to take his single World Cup tally to an absurd 13; and France beating Belgium 4-2 in the only third place play-off to ever go to extra time (rest assured you are guaranteed a good night’s sleep and ready to watch the final fresh next evening).
In 2006, came the brilliant reception Germany gave their team in a superb 3-1 victory over Portugal. It was an occasion that lifted Germany’s spirits, and turned what had usually been a dull occasion into a raucous celebration of football. In 2010, it was the Diego Forlan show, albeit ruined by the Thomas Muller party. Muller took home the Golden boot (thanks to a goal in the play-off) and Forlan took home the Golden Ball (thanks to a superlative goal that still scrambles the brains). Did we say everyone is a loser here? Correction.
Also Read | FIFA World Cup: N’Golo Kante and the Art of Functional Football
Add to that list then, Belgium vs England, a match that has already taken place at the World Cup, albeit with their ‘B’ sides. Maybe they will put out their best teams now – although don’t hold out for that. Michel Platini never played a play-off game in his career, despite having the opportunity to do so in ’82 and ’86. Hans-Jorg Butt, a German goalkeeper who amassed the total of four caps in his career, played the game in 2010.
It is safe to say that the game will have goals galore. And pride too. In conversation, a colleague recently pointed out how football may be the only sport that looks down upon finishing third. Olympic sports consider a bronze medal worthy of honour.
In fact, for some, the bronze represents a medal earned through victory, where silver earned through defeat. And that is the only reason for teams to really take to the field with all at stake. A glorious run on the biggest stage of all can be ruined by two consecutive losses. Where Van Gaal finds reason to complain, others can find inspiration.
If not, bang those goals in anyway. You have a legacy to protect. Dullness in a game ‘without meaning’ will not be tolerated.