World Cup 3rd/4th place play-off: a rant, not a review

Honestly, I was going to do a proper write-up of last night’s World Cup 3rd/4th place playoff match. Really, I was. But, seriously, who cares?

I know I really should be interested. After all, the game was an intriguing match-up between Germany and Uruguay, two countries who has overachieved at this World Cup. And it is also game 63 of 64 in this 2010 tournament; after tonight’s final, that’s it until we reconvene in Brazil four years hence (with a minor detour to Poland and Ukraine for Euro 2012).

But are we really that bothered about determining who finishes third and who finishes fourth in the tournament? FIFA certainly are. They talk about how this is a prestigious game and that third place is a significant prize in itself. And – here’s the clincher – there are ranking points available for the victor. (Woo hoo!)

If it is so important, why don’t we have a series of playoff games between the losing quarter-finalists to decide fifth to eighth place? That would give you three extra games which could be played in the otherwise ‘dead’ days either side of the semi-finals. Think of all the tickets FIFA could sell (or not, as the case may be) for those.

In fact, why not follow this argument all the way to its (il)logical conclusion and set up a format whereby we end up with a definitive ranking of all the participating teams from 1-32 – maybe some kind of league system which leads to qualification for a small knockout tournament at its end, as happens in rugby league and Aussie Rules. I bet FIFA would love that. (Yes, I know it would take an unfeasibly long time. It’s just an example to make a point.)

Okay, I’m getting silly. But the fundamental question stands: why bother?

My yardstick for judging excess in sporting competitions remains the cricket World Cup. Now I love this four-yearly event, but even I lost interest during the first half of a 2007 tournament between just 16 teams which took a seemingly interminable 47 days to determine that Australia – far and away the best team in the world at the time – were, in fact, the best team in the world. Paul the psychic octopus could have told them that and saved us all a month and a half.

Anyway, my point is that even the cricket World Cup didn’t bother with a third-place playoff match. They held every other kind of match to ensure they squeezed every last cent of commercial revenue out of the tournament, but not one between the losing semi-finalists. What does that say?

(Incidentally, after much criticism of the bloated format used in 2007, next year’s World Cup has been reduced to 14 teams, meaning the tournament will be slimmed down to a positively svelte 43 days. Well, that’s alright then.)

To be fair, the rugby union World Cup does also have a ‘bronze final’, but if you look at what happened at the 2007 tournament this only serves to underline the pointlessness of organising such a match. The game between Argentina and the hosts France should have been a passionate affair with real competitive bite, particularly given that the Pumas had created a huge upset in the tournament’s opening game, shocking France 17-12 in their own back yard. The result? A 34-10 romp for Argentina against a French team which rapidly grew disinterested in the game.

Hardly a glowing endorsement, wouldn’t you agree?

One final test. England is a country as passionate about its national team as any other in the world. We have played in a 3rd/4th match once at the World Cup, in Italy in 1990. Ask any average England fan of a certain age about the semi-final defeat to West Germany, and I guarantee you they will wax at length about the match: Andreas Brehme‘s deflected free kick which looped over the back-pedalling Peter Shilton, Gary Lineker‘s swivelling finish to force extra-time, Chris Waddle hitting the post and the agony of the penalty shootout in which Stuart Pearce and Waddle failed to convert their spot-kicks.

Now ask them what they remember of the third place match. I am willing to bet that not many will be able to instantly recall that we played Italy in that game. With a little prompting, some will remember Shilton’s howler to gift Roberto Baggio the opening goal, David Platt‘s headed equaliser and Salvatore ‘Toto’ Schillaci‘s late penalty which gave Italy a 2-1 victory. But none will remember this game in the vivid detail with which they can recall the semi-final.

The harsh reality is that a 3rd/4th place playoff is effectively an irrelevance to everyone concerned except the tournament organisers. Even if it ends up being the best game of the tournament, it is soon forgotten (assuming people watched it in the first place). It will be interesting to see how the viewing figures for tonight’s game compare with both the final and the two semi-finals. Not well, I suspect.

Oh, by the way, in a repeat of the 1970 third-place playoff (which the then West Germany won 1-0), an under-strength Germany beat Uruguay 3-2. It was actually a pretty good game, but I will have long forgotten about it by this time next week. Entertaining as it was, I’m just not that bothered.

About Tim
Father of three. Bit of a geek. That's all, folks.

One Response to World Cup 3rd/4th place play-off: a rant, not a review

  1. Tse Ndex says:

    This 3rd and 4th place caresses our football hangover as we prepare to suffer withdrawal symptoms, otherwise we rarely remember who came second even. I like the way you put it though, Tim. You can see how I put it in the preview

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