Don’t Diss the Game for Third Place

The consolation match is better than you think

So you don’t care about Saturday’s third-place playoff between Brazil and the Netherlands because you think it’ll be a depressing wake for two nations mourning the death of their dreams? I hope you never get to make my funeral arrangements.

More so than ever before, the game will be a fascinating social experiment allowing us to see how fans and players react to a recent tragedy. Wallow in grief, or remember the good times and get on with their lives?

For such an ostensibly inoffensive, trivial affair, the playoff always prompts indifference that corrodes into contempt. Dutch coach Louis van Gaal told reporters after his side’s defeat to Argentina that “this match should never be played and I’ve been saying this for ten years,” and that the contest “has got nothing to do with sports.” Tell that to an Olympic bronze-medalist.

The third-place playoff is a symbol of soccer’s self-serving, contradictory attitude to—well, to attitude. This can be summarized as: winning is everything, except when it isn’t. As professionals representing their country, players always give their utmost. Except when they don’t.

Devaluing third place is snobbery that serves to accentuate the importance of the final, similar to the way clubs barely conceal their scorn for the Europa League because of what it is not—the Champions League. But there is no escaping involvement in these lesser occasions, so why not embrace them, rather than endure them? Why make a tough situation even worse?

The best riposte to critics is the simplest: It’s a World Cup match. Are you seriously saying, with only a couple of days to go before all this crazy, wonderful stuff ends and we don’t get any more for four years, that you’d rather have one less game to watch? Maybe Arjen Robben would rather be flopping into the supple fabric of a deckchair on a beach right now, but who cares what he thinks? This is the planet’s tournament; he merely plays in it.

The playoff ensures that the Cup does not go for more than two days without any action, and in the U.S. this weekend it performs the valuable public service of providing fleeting respite from talk of LeBron James’s move back to Cleveland.

There’s a neatness in having a 32-team competition with 64 games. The gate receipts and sponsor exposure help FIFA with its favorite hobby: stockpiling Scrooge McDuck-sized mounds of cash, whether to one day use it for the good of the sport or to build up a secret weapons cache for a 107-year-old President Blatter’s last stand in the year 2043.

Seriously, though, the extra money helps. The match will take place in Brasilia, which, soil metaphor-wise, is not so much a soccer hotbed as a soccer why-will-only-weeds-grow-here sort of bed. Since the stadium cost $900 million in public money but the city has no decent professional team, maybe it’s not so bad that this white elephant will get to swing its trunk once last time this summer.

The concept is as old as the World Cup itself, though it got off to a less than ideal start in Uruguay in 1930, when Yugoslavia (victims of a controversial offside decision in their semifinal against the hosts) refused to take part and the U.S. were awarded the placing.

But just because Brazil and the Netherlands are mumbling “don’t wanna” like sullen teenagers asked to tidy their rooms does not mean that no one appreciates the match. Germany’s 3–2 win over Uruguay four years ago was an excellent game. When Germany defeated Portugal 3–1 in Stuttgart in 2006, a cheerful and proud home crowd used the occasion as a chance to pay homage to a team that had exceeded expectations.

In 2002, Turkey beat South Korea. In ’98, Croatia overcame Holland. Four years earlier, Sweden thumped Bulgaria 4–0. Finishing third may not cause any samba-related repetitive strain injuries in Rio, but it is a source of pride elsewhere in the world.

The perception of the playoff as the donkey amid a stable of thoroughbreds is harsh given that the lack of pressure promotes goal-laden contests. Consider: in the 17-game history of the fixture, there has never been a goalless draw, and only three matches ended 1–0, most recently in 1974. The event has averaged four (four!) goals per game. This World Cup is averaging 2.7.

And one of the strikes was this effort by Nelinho in 1978, which happens to be among the greatest goals of all time. He absolutely buried it.