On Wednesday, the Netherlands lost a thoroughly uninspiring 0-0 penalty kick shootout to Argentina, sending Lionel Messi and company into Sunday afternoon's World Cup final against Germany. In contrast to this thrilling tournament -- many longtime observers have argued this has been the best tournament in decades -- the game was dull, plodding and conservative, two highly-skilled teams doing their best to make sure nobody on either side showed any skill. This is why penalty kicks exist: So games like yesterday's don't go on for several weeks.
Anyway, after the game, Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal was asked about his team's approach to Saturday's third-place game against Brazil. Unlike just about every other top-level tournament in the Western world, the World Cup has a third-place game. Suffice it to say, Van Gaal is not particularly looking forward to it:
"I think that this match should never be played. I have been saying this for the past 10 years. We will just have to play the game but it is unfair. ... But the worst thing is, I believe, there is a chance that you lose twice in a row in a tournament in which you've played so marvelously well. You go home as a 'loser' because possibly you've lost the last two matches. This game has nothing to do with sports in my opinion. ... No tournament, no football tournament, especially in the last stage, should you have players playing for third or fourth. There is only one prize and one award that counts for anything and that is becoming champion."
This is a popular sentiment, particularly among coaches minutes after they've lost in a World Cup semifinal. And outside of the Olympics -- which have an actual medal to award in that game, raising the stakes considerably -- and high school sports, it's difficult to find anyone who has a third-place game anymore. None of the other major soccer tournaments have it. The NCAA basketball tournament dropped theirs in 1981. The NFL, amusingly, had something called the Playoff Bowl that featured the semifinal losers playing a third-place game in Miami throughout the '60s; it was discontinued with the NFL/AFL merger. (A third-place game is basically the exact opposite of what today's NFL stands for.)
I understand why Van Gaal would want to skip the game. He's angry his team lost, he has a Manchester United team to go coach, he's generally cranky across the board anyway. But at the risk of sounding a little "everybody gets a participation certificate because they are a special snowflake," I'd like to argue in favor of the third-place game. I wish every sport had them.
It promises light redemption, even for the team that loses.
Maybe Van Gaal doesn't see any immediate benefit for his team in a third-place game; it just spent 120 minutes picking its collective nose rather than trying to score. (Seriously: That had to have been the dullest game of the whole tournament, a travesty when you consider the players involved.) But you know who's elated to play? Brazil.
Brazil just went through as painful an experience as any national team can go through: I'm still scarred from the experience, and I've never even been to Brazil. That nation is mourning. Giving them something -- anything -- to put that game further away from their brains is an undeniable positive. Brazil's dead-man-walking coach Luiz Felipe Scolari is basically counting on it: "Life goes on, we need to look forward to our next goal, and our next goal is to win the match for third place. We have to play it. It has become our main goal." The connection between this country and this team was so strong that having that game be the last time they saw each other is almost too traumatic. There needs to be some sort of release, some gentle settling.
The third-place game allows this. Even if Brazil loses to the Netherlands, it won't be like that. The World Cup is one of the biggest events in every player's life, and to have it end in the semifinals -- the dream snatched away so abruptly -- seems almost too harsh. This allows everyone to have the atmosphere of a World Cup game without all the pressure: If allows everyone to go home, if not happy, at least a little less anguished. It might only help a little, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
It bodes well for the future.
The third-place finisher at the last two World Cups: Germany, the team that's playing in the finals this year and the favorite to win. The first goal of the 2010 third-place game was scored by Thomas Mueller, who has been even more of a key to the Germans at this Cup than he was last time. The third-place game usually features a team's reserves, which usually means it's a look at the young player you can expect to see more of in four years. The young players on a team that makes the semifinals are future stars: Think of the third-place game as a Futures Game with actual (albeit small) stakes.
If you're not a top-tier program, it's basically a highlight of your nation's history.
In 1994, Sweden branded its third-place game "the bronze game" and played all out; after a 4-0 win over Bulgaria, the team had a parade through the streets of Stockholm. Just because the Netherlands thinks the third-place game is beneath them doesn't mean everybody does.
Ask Turkey, which pulled off a wild third-place finish in 2002, or Croatia, still celebrating its third-place finish in 1998. Heck, say what you will about the United States, but having a third-place on our resume (even if it was at the first World Cup in 1930, and came in the only Cup where a third-place game wasn't actually played) is better than nothing. And better than fourth.
Everyone plays much looser.
Because the stakes are so much lower, everyone's much more relaxed in a third-place game, which usually means a wide-open game, and a ton more goals. 2010 had a wild 3-2 Germany win over Uruguay -- which was even more fun because everyone in the stands was booing Luis Suarez so loudly -- and no third-place game has featured fewer than three goals since 1974. That Argentina-Netherlands game was definitely more important than Saturday's third-place game, but it certainly won't end up more exciting; nobody sits back and plays defensively in a third-place game. It'll be entertaining, no matter what.
It lets everyone say goodbye.
This is of particular import to Brazil, which really could use some sort of resolution, if not absolution. It is awfully stressful putting together a World Cup team, playing, coaching, cheering for them, having the hopes of a nation ride on every second. Fans of these teams will remember the names of every one of these players, forever. It certainly does not hurt to give them once last wave. This is particularly the case when one of the teams in the third-place game is a host, like this year, and in 2002 with South Korea. It's a way to wrap a nice bow on everything.
It's free sports.
Honestly: Isn't a stakes-free, relaxed World Cup game better than no World Cup game at all? The only thing worse than watching a third-place soccer game is watching no soccer game. Watching sports is better than not watching sports. After Sunday, this thing isn't coming back for four years. Let's enjoy every moment we have left.
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