Tomorrow Brazil and the Netherlands face each other in Brasília to determine who finishes in third place but in reality it’s the seventh game neither team wants to be involved in. For Brazil the consolation of a bronze medal won’t come close to healing the psychological scars of that semi-final mauling at the hands of Germany. For the Netherlands it’s a feeling of what might have been after losing on penalties. Dutch manager Louis van Gaal has made his feelings known regarding its existence, “This match should never be played. I’ve been saying that for 10 years; it’s unfair”. He also added:
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 marvelously well you go home as a loser.
It’s a game I will watch, since I’ve been supporting the Dutch all tournament, but regardless of the outcome it will be yet another third/fourth-place play-off forgotten by history.
Let’s face it; nobody remembers the third/fourth-place play-off game at a World Cup. Sure, we know France finished fourth in 1982 and went one better four years later but does anybody actually remember Platini, Tigana and Giresse playing Poland in Alicante or against Belgium in Puebla? For the vast majority the answer is a resounding “no”. We remember France’s epic semi-final meeting with West Germany in 1982 which finished 3-3 after extra-time and saw Harald Schumacher commit GBH on live television. We also remember their penalty shoot-out victory over Brazil in the quarter-finals in Guadalajara four years later, before a muted exit to the Germans once again. The fact of the matter is that the third/fourth-place play-off is not a match that is widely remembered for its quality or for producing an abiding memory of that year’s World Cup.
That said in traditionally smaller footballing nations it is. Sweden’s team returned from the United States in 1994 to a parade through the streets of Stockholm celebrating their bronze medal winners. Turkey had good cause to celebrate their success in the bronze medal match, defeating the co-hosts South Korea, in only their second ever appearance at the World Cup finals. Four years earlier in France, Croatia celebrated their status as a newly independent nation in the world of football with success in the third/fourth-place play-off over the Netherlands. So for the smaller, “middle” nations winning bronze could well be the highpoint of a nation’s football history for a number of generations.
In its defence, the last two bronze medal matches have actually been pretty good watching. In 2006 Germany put the heartbreak of their semi-final loss to Italy behind them to beat Portugal 3-1, with all four goals coming in the second 45. Four years ago the Germans were involved yet again. Uruguay went 2-1 up thanks to Edison Cavani and Golden Ball winner Diego Forlán before the Germans staged a characteristic comeback to win a second successive bronze medal, 3-2. That said were any of the goals memorable? Was there a moment from either game that has become iconic? In truth, no.
Perhaps the only third/fourth-place play-off that produced some real World Cup history was the 1958 meeting between France and West Germany. Unlike this year’s drab encounter at the Maracanã, that year’s encounter between the two produced nine goals. Coincidentally a certain Just Fontaine entered into that game with nine goals to his name. When the final whistle was blown he had 13 goals to his name, a record haul for a single tournament which looks less likely with each passing World Cup to ever be beaten. It also remains the last time France beat their fierce rivals at the World Cup.
Whatever your feelings regarding the third/fourth-place play-off it’s free football after all and another World Cup game before this wonderful tournament bows out on Sunday evening after a glorious 32 days of football.
By Eoghan Wallace