My World Cup: A record - or an asterisk - for Klose?

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.

10 comments about "My World Cup: A record - or an asterisk - for Klose?".
  1. Christopher Holden, July 10, 2010 at 2:20 a.m.

    If Klose plays, and if he scores, the goal counts as much as any World Cup game.
    Ditto for Suarez.

  2. John h Borja, July 10, 2010 at 2:49 a.m.

    You've given all the reasons why someone should probably skip this match on t.v.
    Some of the reasons why someone should see this game are really very close to reason why anyone would pay to see an exhibition match in other circumstances.
    You just want to see world renown players play. You just want to see two teams that played extraordinary games during the rest of the tournament play one more time. Some have dumped big criticisms on Bruce Arena for his comment regarding the honor it was for the U.S. to reach the round of 16. It is an honor. It's an honor just to make it to the World Cup. Imagine all the many teams that did not make it on the road to South Africa. Of course, money, advertising, and just plain filler before the main event are all other reasons for the match on Saturday. There are those basic stigmas that penalize the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th place teams. They just didn't get the grand prize. They will not be remembered. Ha! Everyone remembers that the Bills and the Vikings have gone to the Super Bowl 4 times and haven't won "it". But another reason exists, even for some, an absurd reason. The reason is history and the kids worldwide. They need to see that there is pride in good sportmanship and playing for the last spots, officially. They need to see that everyone will live another day to try again. Woods barely made the cut the other day and Michelson didn't make the cut yesterday. They'll play another tournament next week and, perhaps, win the top prize. I hope Germany and Uruguay play their hearts out. The fans and the kids need to see that. The money people need to see the worthiness of the event as well. These players are in the entertainment business, they should act like it. The show must go on!

  3. David Mont, July 10, 2010 at 9:22 a.m.

    Paul also fails to mention that Ronaldo scored two goals in Brazil's last group game against Costa Rica in 2002 and two more in Brazil's last group game against Japan in 2006. Both of those games were largely meaningless for Brazil for they had already ensured their passage into the round of 16.

  4. Gus Keri, July 10, 2010 at 9:31 a.m.

    Paul, What you and the Bulgarian official forgot to mention is that the reason behind Bulgaria's massive loss is the fact that the whole team went on full attack trying to help Hristo Stoitchkov get his 7th goal so he can pass Salenko of Russia on the top of the goalscorers list. Of course, he failed. He missed many unbelievably easy opportunities. this tell you that Karma never stop working. If Klose deserves the goalscoring record to himself, Karma will give it to him no matter what.

  5. Loren C. Klein, July 10, 2010 at 11:05 a.m.

    I seem to remember that the Third Place matches in 2002 and 2006 were both highly entertaining. Maybe Paul doesn't know good football when he sees it. Oops.

  6. Guenther Rieder, July 10, 2010 at 12:34 p.m.

    Germany and Uruguay both have something to prove in this game. Germany needs to
    show that Del Bosque's comments about
    Uruguay being the tougher match vs. Spain is not justified. Uruguay needs to
    prove it belongs as a world Superpower.
    I believe it will be a good match.

  7. Frank Cebul, July 10, 2010 at 5:07 p.m.

    I disagree with every point that Paul Gardner makes. Fortunately the actual game supports my views. Germany gave many younger players valuable playing experience while they continued to play to win against a full-strength Uruguay team. Any player or coach who does not take the 3rd place game seriously does not deserve to represent their country and earns the scorn of everyone.

  8. George Gorecki, July 10, 2010 at 5:27 p.m.

    The four goals that Sweden scored against Bulgaria in 1994 are not suspect. That is utter nonsense. If the Bulgarians did not take the game seriously, that has nothing to do with Sweden. Sweden came out to play a match, and from the result, the match had meaning for them. All they can do is show up and play, as required. They have no control over what their opponent does.

  9. Cristian Deseanu, July 10, 2010 at 7:14 p.m.

    This after the game! It's funny to see that Paul was wrong again! He is probably happy because Klose didn't make it! But the game was awesome! Paul is gonna agree w this! I know he love statistics! Well most of this games for the 3rd place, were very good games, w a lot of energy and far from boring! Maybe if you put the game from today on a final, probably you'll have a totally different game! And probably not that entertaining like the one from today! But we do have a final tomorrow! For all of us is a Holliday! Let's have fun! Let the best team to win!

  10. Bertrand Hamilton, July 10, 2010 at 10:02 p.m.

    You blew it again: this was one of the better games of the turnament. As far as Klose is concerned, you got your wish; even after his ridiculous red card in the Serbia game and having to sit out the Ghana game, he still came klose!! It is a fool's errand to compare goal scorers of each generation. They had their own champions, starting with Kocsis, Fontain, Mu"ller and Ronaldo. Its like comparing the proverbial apples and oranges. I hope you enjoyed the bronze place game because it was good; if you did not, I am sorry for you.

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