Defend Truth


It’s time to retire the World Cup’s pointless third-place play-off


Antoinette thinks of the world and the people who live in it as a bear with a sore paw. She has a stick covered in thorns and shes poking the bear. When shes not doing that, shes watching cricket and longing for the days of the boring, boring Arsenal.

The most watched sporting event on the planet rolls on to our screens this weekend. France and Croatia will square off for football’s biggest prize while either England or Belgium will end their incredible tournament runs with back-to-back losses.

Golden Boot leader, Harry Kane, has played 483 minutes of football over the last few weeks. Romelu Lukaku, second in line, has played 416 minutes.

On Saturday, both players will, in all likelihood, add to that tally with less than a month to go before the Premier League season kicks off.

Ah, the third place play-off in tournament football, as pointless as Egypt at World Cups. (Egypt has literally never won a point at a World Cup, make of that what you will.)

The tradition is almost as old as the tournament itself. It has some relevance in instances where the host nation reaches that far (think South Korea in 2002 or Germany in 2006), allowing teams to thank their fans for the support, but overall, the spectacle offers little value other than some more broadcasting bucks.

Out of the 64 matches of the World Cup, this is the only one that means absolutely nothing and the only which almost nobody will remember. Most anoraks can rattle off list of champions and teams who played in the final, but how many can name the team who played in the team that finished third?

It’s a nice footnote on the overall tournament summation, but there are no bronze medals on offer like at the Olympics. There is a fraction more prize money on offer, but in in the modern era, there are other ways to decide this distribution.

If progression from the group stage can be decided by things like fair play and tournament organisers absolutely insist in not giving the losing semi-finalists an equal cut of the slush fund, why not decide the third place by something frivolous like most chances created in the knock-outs?

The modern game demands an extraordinary workload from players and the third-place play-off is just another game to add to the ever-growing list.

Even coaches admit that it’s not really high on the priority list. England manager Gareth Southgate said after his side’s 2-1 defeat to Croatia: “The honest thing is it’s not a game any team wants to play in. We have two days to prepare. We will want to give a performance of huge pride, no question about that.

Every time we wear the shirt of our national team, we want to play with pride and play well and win. It will be a really difficult task to assess everybody over the next 24 hours and get them mentally back to where we want them to be for a game like that, but that will be the challenge.”

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez tried to look for the positives after losing to France, saying: “It is a difficult emotion to manage. You are disappointed you lost the semi-final. It is difficult to almost see the opportunity to play another game as a positive.”

In the greater context, it is hard to be positive when teams know they could end a tournament where they excelled with back-to-back losses, hardly a fitting end when sides have had such remarkable runs.

The few who enjoy this indulgence will say that that the third-place match often produces more goals. That’s true. Across the years, the tournament’s forgotten fixture averages almost four goals per match. But that perhaps points more to the fact that players are so knackered that they’ve stopped caring about studious defending.

The Euros retired the third-place play-off back in the 1980s and yet the World Cup persists.

As the tournament continues to expand to include more teams and as the physical demand on players in the top leagues across the world continues to grow, perhaps it’s time for Fifa to consider putting it to bed, too. DM


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