How the much-maligned World Cup third-place match can often define tournaments

How the much-maligned World Cup third-place match can often define tournaments

Moscow and Saint Petersburg are two cities in the same country that have traditionally been rivals. Ask an ordinary Muscovite which city is Russia’s most important and you’ll almost always get the same answer: “One city used to be the capital of Russia and the other is Moscow.”

In other words, Saint Petersburg, currently the country’s second-largest city, used to matter. It’s true, however, that both played a unique and defining role in the development of the country’s culture and formation throughout the past four centuries. It’s only fitting, then, that Sunday’s highly-anticipated World Cup final is scheduled to take place in Moscow, while the third-place match was awarded to Saint Petersburg by the organisers.

If Saint Petersburg has always been considered secondary to Moscow in terms of prestige, power and popularity, the third-place match that will be played at Saint Petersburg Stadium on Saturday also finds itself in much the same inferior position. The consolation match is largely considered a second-class event compared to the final – or any other match of a World Cup – where a new champion will be crowned at the Luzhniki. Despite that gulf in interest and importance, a sold-out crowd of 64,287 is expected to pack into the venue to watch the two semi-final losers play for bronze.

While few fans around the world will care about this game – and even fewer will remember its outcome years from now – third-place matches at the World Cup have often been more entertaining than the final itself. While finals have largely been characterised by caution and tight defending – the last three, for example, have only produced four goals – third-place matches have regularly been high-scoring affairs, featuring open play and little defending that has produced some of the greatest moments in World Cup history. Third-place matches, for example, have produced 12 goals in the past three editions alone.

This year’s third-place match sold out a few months ago, with tickets on the secondary market going for 10 times the face-value price. A Category 3 ticket – those typically that cost the least, located behind the goals – were originally sold by FIFA in September 2017 for $175 apiece. Scalpers are now selling them for over $1,000. They could go for even more money as fans try to take in every moment of this memorable tournament. Both the demand and prices for those same tickets could have skyrocketed, scalpers said, had host-nation Russia been playing and not eliminated in the quarter-finals.

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Fans who spend that much money on a largely meaningless football match will be in for a treat. The game usually produces goals. No World Cup third-place game has seen less than three goals since Poland’s 2-0 win against Brazil at the 1974 edition. Despite that, the game largely loathed by players and managers, who feel that a defeat in the consolation game can otherwise sully what has been a strong run in the knockout stages.

“I think that this match should never be played,” Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal told reporters ahead of his side’s third-place match against Brazil at the 2014 World Cup. “I have been saying this for the past 10 years. We will just have to play the game, but it is unfair. We will have one day less to recover and that’s not fair play. The worst thing is, I believe, there is a chance that you lose twice in a row in a tournament in which you’ve played so marvellously well. You go home as a loser because possibly you’ve lost the last two matches.”

The Netherlands defeated Brazil – still wounded from their 7-1 rout by eventual champions Germany – to win the third-place match four years ago. It was little consolation for the Dutch, however, who lost to Argentina in the semi-finals via a penalty shootout. It would be the last bright moment for a national side that plunged into despair after failing to qualify for the European Championship two years later and the 2018 World Cup.

Hating this game is nothing new. The third-place match has been maligned from the very start of the World Cup itself. FIFA have kept the game on the schedule since 1934, when Germany defeated Austria 3-2 in Naples, Italy. Which team placed third at the inaugural World Cup remains a matter of contention so many decades later. A FIFA bulletin from 1984 incorrectly stated that a third-place match had taken place, won by Yugoslavia 3-1 against the United States. Historians differ on whether a third-place game was even scheduled. Some have theorised that Yugoslavia refused to play the game after becoming increasingly upset with the officiating at the tournament.

Two years after that erroneous FIFA report, the sport’s governing body ranked the United States third at that World Cup due to a better goal difference. The controversy, however, didn’t end there. In 2010, the son of Kosta Hadzi, the head of the Yugoslav delegation at the 1930 tournament, claimed his country had been awarded one bronze medal for the entire team, which he had kept as part of his personal collection. The long-standing grudge between the United States and Yugoslavia over who finished third is a contradiction of sorts, revealing both how much – and how very little – this game has meant historically. It often depends on who you ask or which teams are involved.

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One of the most-thrilling third-place games took place at Korea-Japan 2002. South Korea, who had gone on an incredible run during the knockout stages which included controversial wins against Italy and Spain, found itself contesting the third-place match against Turkey, another of the tournament’s surprise sides. Before 63,000 red-clad fans loudly cheering for the host nation inside Daegu Stadium, Turkey won the game 3-2 between two exhausted sides. The back-and-forth match showcased the best of these two teams and what football could offer. For Turkey, it would result in their best finish ever at a World Cup. Fourth-place also remains South Korea’s best finish in 10 appearances.

In that game, striker Hakan Şükür put Turkey ahead just 10.8 seconds into the match for the fastest goal in finals history. In fact, the goal remains the fastest to start a game at any major international tournament. Şükür’s goal would set the tone for what would be an end-to-end match. Nicknamed the Bull of the Bosphorus during his playing days, Şükür would go on to work as a television football pundit and was only recently talked about again when The New York Times featured him in a story this past May.

The newspaper revealed that Şükür, arguably the best football player Turkey has ever produced, had been working in a California bakery, exiled from his country after a foray into Turkish politics led him afoul of President Recep Erdoğan. Şükür’s crime? Insulting Erdogen on Twitter.

Veteran manager Guus Hiddink has mixed feeling about the game. It meant more to finish third as coach of South Korea in 2002 than fourth-place with the Netherlands four years earlier after losing to Brazil in a penalty-kick shootout. “That’s why I don’t like the Saturday before the final,” said Hiddink, who is in Russia for the World Cup working as a TV pundit for US broadcaster Fox, “because you have to play for third place. We had a very competitive, World Cup-worthy team,” Hiddink added, recalling that Dutch side from 1998 that featured stars such as Dennis Bergkamp and Edgar Davids. “That’s why by the third-place match, the energy is totally gone … days after and years after, you think differently. At that moment, you think first place – the final.”

For some players, the third-place match is about personal success. By piling on goals and capturing the Golden Boot, some have often achieved immortality with the help of this meaningless seventh game. It happened with Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci in 1990, Croatia’s Davor Šuker in 1998 and Germany’s Thomas Müller in 2010. Despite these statistics – or maybe because of them – it is debatable how seriously teams take this game. Managers like to use it to rest players, giving others who spent most of the competition on the bench the opportunity to play in a World Cup game.

The match also is loaded with interesting anecdotes and historical footnotes. In both 1982 and 1986, Michel Platini didn’t play in either of France’s third-place games. Goalkeeper Hans-Jörg Butt, who only amassed four caps for Germany in his career, started in the 2010 bronze medal game that Die Mannschaft won against Uruguay. Germany hold the record for most third-place finishes with four.

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In 1990, semi-final losers Italy, the host nation, and England contested the game at the Stadio San Nicola in Bari. The Italians, stunned by the defeat on penalties to Diego Maradona’s Argentina in the semis in Naples, mustered enough to win 2-1. The game saw three goals in the span of 15 minutes. Roberto Baggio opened the scoring in the 71st minute, much to the delight of the home crowd. Ten minutes later, David Platt evened the score with a header. For both Baggio and Platt, Italia 90 proved to be a breakout tournament. In the end, Schillaci notched the match-winning goal via a penalty four minutes from time that eluded Peter Shilton in the 40-year-old’s goalkeeper final international for the Three Lions.

As for Schillaci, it was the diminutive Sicilian’s sixth goal of the finals and enough to win him the Golden Boot. England took another consolation prize in FIFA’s Fair Play award after receiving no red cards and the lowest average number of yellows per match.

While traditional football powers tend not to take this match seriously, surprise teams rarely expected to get far at the World Cup often do. At USA 94, Sweden trounced Bulgaria 4-0 in a game that featured two surprise sides. Four years later, Croatia had a fabulous tournament, only to lose to 2-1 to hosts and eventual champions France in the semis. They made up for that narrow defeat by topping the Dutch to capture third at the Parc des Princes in Paris. The match-winner, by Šuker after 36 minutes, was enough to secure him the Golden Boot.

In other cases, the game has allowed a player to cement himself as the World Cup’s best. It happened in South Africa during the 2010 tournament. Striker Diego Forlán achieved that after Uruguay finished a surprising fourth. Forlan was awarded the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player something he still looks back fondly upon: “Obviously it’s something spectacular to be among the top four. If someone would’ve asked us at the beginning [of the 2010 World Cup], we would’ve liked it. It’s something positive.”

Indeed, history shows that the third-place game can be something positive for the fans and players. The time has come to embrace this game. It has given us some of the World Cup’s most underrated moments and that’s never a bad thing.

By Clemente Lisi @ClementeLisi

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