The World Cup's Third-Place Game Is A Goddamned Disgrace To Soccer

When Spain were dealt an embarrassing group stage exit a jet was chartered to fly their players back to Madrid as soon as a flight path could be cleared. Just a matter of hours after their final game against Australia, the Spanish squad was at São Paulo International Airport, perusing the Duty Free and the Hudson News shelves.

It wasn't an unusual tack. England too arrived back in Manchester the very next morning after their last obligation in Brazil. Soccer players generally don't wish to dwell on their failures. Instead they would rather be poolside in Dubai, sipping a sickly-sweet cocktail with a pair of oversized headphones draped around their neck.

But while Brazil and the Netherlands' respective World Cup dreams were crushed earlier this week, they're being kept at the tournament against their will until Saturday.


The two countries will compete the third-place playoff game in Brasília ahead of the showpiece event in Rio de Janeiro 24 hours later. Technically speaking, it should be the second most important game in international soccer (behind the final, of course) but it is a mere footnote in the grand scheme of the tournament.

Ask yourself, how vividly can you remember what happened in the last third-place playoff game, at the 2010 World Cup? Sure, Diego Forlan's flying volley made the tournament highlight reel, with five goals shared between Germany and Uruguay, but what else can you truly recall from that game in Port Elizabeth?

Indeed, the third-place playoff game is almost always forgettable and ultimately meaningless. It is the only World Cup fixture that has absolutely no bearing on the eventual winner.

Unsurprisingly, the calls for the fixture to be scrapped are loud, with Dutch coach Louis Van Gaal leading the rally.

"This match should never be played," growled a clearly irked Van Gaal following the Netherlands' semi-final exit to Argentina. "I've been saying that for 10 years. It's unfair. There's only one prize, one award that counts, and that is becoming World champion."

So why hasn't FIFA scrapped the much-maligned third-place game?

A crowd of 91,000 was drawn to the third-place game at the Rose Bowl for the 1994 World Cup, giving us an idea of why the concept has been played at every tournament since 1950.

It is an extra game for FIFA to sell. For FIFA to sell tickets, to sell television rights and to sell merchandising. As far as the tournament organizers are concerned, it's a good way to fill the three empty days on the schedule between the semi-finals and the final.

The third-place playoff has been a part of the World Cup on all but two occasions since the tournament's inception in 1930. It borrows its essence from Olympic culture, where bronze is treated as a genuine achievement. In soccer only gold matters.

All this isn't to say that third-place playoff games aren't entertaining spectacles. At least three goals have been scored in all but three such fixtures, as the pressure and strain that comes with a World Cup is partially relieved.

However, it's not a completely futile exercise. Salvatore Schillaci, Davor Suker and Thomas Müller will all attest to as much, with all three players securing the Golden Shoe award with goals in the third-place playoff game.

It can also warp the tone of a team's tournament, as van Gaal is all too aware. Despite their semi-final exit the Netherlands has enjoyed a successful World Cup, coming within a penalty shootout of making the final when so many expected them to wither in the group.

But as van Gaal points out, a second defeat in the space of just a few days could change the reception with which his side is met when they return home. "The worst thing is I believe that, chances are, you lose twice in a row and a tournament where you've played so marvelously well you'll leave as a loser after losing the last two matches," the Manchester United boss-in-waiting protested.

The converse effect can take hold, though. For Brazil, Saturday's game in Brasília does present the prospect of scant redemption.

In the space of 90 minutes the World Cup went from being Brazil's pride to its shame. The 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany will linger long in the Brazilian psyche, but they can at least end their tournament on a higher note against the Netherlands. Even if Saturday's game is little more than a glorified exhibition.

There was a scenario that could have changed the dynamic of the third-place playoff game at this World Cup. Had Argentina, rather than Holland, dropped into the consolation fixture with Brazil a contest to rival the final would have been dealt. Alas, there was to be no such eventuality.

Perhaps the human aspect of the third-place playoff game shouldn't be neglected. In 2006, it gave German legend Oliver Kahn the opportunity to bid his final farewell in front of 52,000 fans in Stuttgart. Sweden seemed to embrace the extra fixture, scoring four goals in the first half against Bulgaria on the eve of the 1994 final in Los Angeles.

Swedish goalkeeper Thomas Ravelli celebrated by cartwheeling across his box while the ball was still in play at the other end of the pitch. Such exuberance from Júlio César or Jasper Cillessen (or even Tim Krul) Saturday seems unlikely. This is the game nobody other than FIFA wants to play.

Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer covering a wide range of subjects across the sport for outlets like The New York Times, ESPN, MSN, Eurosport, and Scottish TV, among others. He is a curator of football shirt (the more garish the better), an apostle of Dimitar Berbatov, and still maintains Dennis Bergkamp didn't mean it. You can follow him on Twitter,@grahamruthven.

Screamer is Deadspin's soccer site. We're @ScreamerDS on Twitter. We'll be partnering with our friends at Howler Magazine throughout the World Cup. Follow them on Twitter,@whatahowler.

Photo credit: Getty