The third-place playoff: the World Cup game no one wants to play

Juan Mabromata /Pedro Ugarte, AFP | Brazil coach Scolari (left) and Holland's van Gaal (right)

Holland and Brazil, beaten semi-finalists, will meet Saturday for a chance to claim third place in the 2014 World Cup - a prize neither side is keen to play for.


Fresh from the disappointment - and in the latter’s case, humiliation - of their semi-final defeats, Holland and Brazil would probably rather be allowed to slink quietly home or to a far away beach for a much-needed holiday – or indeed be anywhere other than back on a football pitch this weekend.

But instead the teams, like a couple of dancing bears, will be dragged back out in front of the crowd for a final time in a match dubbed meaningless by fans, players and coaches alike.

There are cases in the past when teams embraced the opportunity for one final hurrah before departing the World Cup.

In 1994, for example, a Sweden squad that had far exceeded expectations by making it to the semi-finals treated the occasion as a chance to celebrate their incredible run and duly stuck four past a disinterested Bulgaria in the first half.

Four years later, the newly-formed Croatia national team, playing in their first ever World Cup, were more than happy to make a final bow with a 2-1 third-place playoff win over Holland.

But generally, such cases are the exceptions, not the rule. To say neither Brazil nor Holland will be treating the occasion with much relish is an understatement.

‘Nothing whatsoever to do with sport’

Holland coach Louis van Gaal has already made his feelings about the match clear.
"I think this match should never be played," van Gaal told reporters. "I've been saying this for 10 years. But we'll just have to play this match."

Van Gaal may have particular reason to wind-up this World Cup campaign, given that he is due to take the reins at Manchester United and will be eager to start work, but it is true he has been campaigning for third-place playoffs to be scrapped for some time.

He argues that, while little is gained from winning, the possibility of losing will only accentuate the stench of failure surrounding a campaign that might otherwise be seen as relatively successful.

"After a tournament in which you've played so marvelously well, you go home as a loser just because you've lost the last two matches. This has got nothing whatsoever to do with sport,” he said.

"But I said this 15 years ago. You shouldn't have players play a match for 3rd/4th place, because there's only one prize that counts and that's becoming champion.”

Dutch forward Arjen Robben was equally dismissive of the chance to claim the third-place ‘prize’.

“They can keep it,” he said. “Only one prize, counts and that is becoming world champion.”

But if the Dutch feel they have little to gain from Saturday’s game, their opponents have more to lose.

Some may see it as a shot at partial redemption after their 7-1 ruination at the hands of Germany – or “the biggest humiliation in the history of Brazilian football,” as one Brazilian daily dubbed it.

But losing by another big margin would surely heap further misery upon the team and fans alike.

‘A much smaller dream’

Brazil's Daniel Alves is well aware of the importance of avoiding that scenario, but still failed to muster much enthusiasm for the match.

"We represent millions of people, so we have to digest this defeat and go out onto the field on Saturday. But, for me, every game is about being first," said the right back.

"The important thing is first place. Nothing else matters.”

Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari has perhaps even more reason than van Gaal to be resentful at being forced to lead his team into battle once more.

Though he has remained tight-lipped on his future, it would be hugely unexpected if he were allowed to continue as Brazil coach following the semi-final massacre.

Motivating a group of players to compete in a game they see as meaningless following such a soul destroying defeat can never be easy for a manager, but especially so when the executioner’s axe hovers above his head.

Ahead of the game, Scolari gave one of the least convincing battle cries in sporting history.

"I know my career will be marked by (the semi-final) defeat, but we have an obligation to move on and think about the next goal, which in this case is the match for third place on Saturday in Brasilia," he said.

"I know it's a much smaller dream that we all wanted, but we have to honour the shirt of the national team."

There is one upside to the game, however: neutrals can at least expect an entertaining match.

In the previous nine World Cups, the third-place playoff has seen an average of 4.2 goals – compared to just 2.4 for the final itself.

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