By Paul Gardner
Today the World Cup will celebrate its third-place game -- though "celebrate" is hardly the word to describe the playing of what is also known as the consolation game, and, more cruelly, the losers' final.
There’s quite a strong line of opinion that sees no reason to play the game at all. It always has an unreal air to it, like one of those not-too-good acts that are sent on stage to get theater audiences in the right mood, or possibly to stop them from getting rowdy, as they wait for the main act, the one they’ve paid big bucks to see.
Getting booed offstage was a not infrequent fate for such acts -- not necessarily because they were inept, but simply because they were not the real thing.
Germany and Uruguay will not be booed off the field today, of course, but the problem remains that they are not the real thing -- so how is one to assess their play? Are we to take this game seriously?
One answer to that is to wait and see if either Germany or Uruguay takes it seriously. Will they put out full teams? Will they play flat out, risking life and limb to avoid the national disgrace of finishing fourth rather than third? (I’m dramatizing things somewhat, you understand).
Or, failing that approach, is it possible that both teams will decide that, really, nothing at all is on the line here, so why not just enjoy ourselves and play an open attacking game?
I doubt they’ll do any of those things. Once upon a time, many years ago, they seem to have opted for the open-play approach. Between 1934 and 1958 there were four third-place games. They must have been quite lively events, for 24 goals were scored -- six goals per game!
In the 12 games since then, the average is just above 3 goals per game -- which, for this era of Scrooge soccer, is still quite high.
In looking at the goalscoring, I’m trying to measure the value of the game as a spectator attraction. There does not seem to be much reason, other than that, to play this game. But the basis for playing a “losers’ final” is so compromised right from the start that I fear there is no way to take it seriously. Certainly, using goalscoring as a yardstick will not do it.
Consider the third place game in 1994 between Sweden and Bulgaria. Both teams had exceeded expectations by getting to the semifinals, both had lost narrowly -- a meaningful struggle for that one extra win seemed likely. Forget it. The scoreline was Sweden 4, Bulgaria 0. The Bulgarians sleep-walked through the game. When it was over, I asked one of the Bulgarian delegation why they had failed to take the game seriously. He replied, jovially, “After we lose the semifinal, no more soccer. After that, cigars, whisky and f***!”
Which means that all four of those Swedish goals must be considered suspect. That, in turn, completes the case against treating the third-place game as a genuine World Cup game. The scoreline just can’t be trusted because this is not a real game.
But the unreal status of the game carries some very real implications. Today’s game, for instance, may see Germany’s Miroslav Klose on the field. Now, Klose stands just one goal behind Brazil’s Ronaldo on the all-time World Cup goalscoring chart. Ronaldo has 15, Klose has 14. Two goals for Klose today will make him the top scorer. But two goals scored in the third-place game ... can one be entirely happy with that?
All of Ronaldo’s 15 goals were scored in regular World Cup games. Two were scored in the World Cup final in 2002 -- surely the high-pressure antithesis of a low-pressure third-place game. Ronaldo never played in a third-place game.
Another example: the holder of the record for scoring most goals in a single World Cup is France’s Just Fontaine, who racked up 13 goals in 1958. Four of those goals came in France’s 6-3 win in the third-place game over a German team that had made five changes from the team that had lost its semifinal.
I am making a case for viewing the third-place game as a World Cup sideshow, one that has absolutely nothing to do with the development of the tournament itself. As such, it should not be included in the official statistics, because its figures distort the record.
The case, it seems to me is a strong one. But it has a weakness. Because there are always likely to be other games in any tournament that are not fully meaningful. Such games will likely crop up in the final group games of the first round. In South Africa, for instance we’ve just had a Mexico vs. Uruguay game that could have been played out as a comfortable tie (but which was not) plus two games featuring teams that were already eliminated, a tournament-generated situation that might well have an effect on a team’s competitiveness.
The question needs to be asked: does the third-place game have any value other than as a way of selling 70,000 or so more tickets? Does it have any soccer value? It certainly tidies up the 1-2-3-4 order of the top finishers nicely, but that is hardly a persuasive argument, especially when part of that process might involve creating questionable records.
May Germany and Uruguay give us a genuine game today -- but I'm still hoping that Klose, should he be fit to play, does not get any goals. A record based on third-place goals is not quite a record to me. It would deserve to be diminished by an asterisk.