Why does the third-place game exist at the World Cup?


When is that flight to Amsterdam, again? (EPA/Marius Becker)

On Saturday afternoon, World Cup semifinal losers Brazil and the Netherlands will meet in the third-place game in Brasilia. Chances are, few soccer fans will remember anything about this match. And chances are, the players involved will want to be anywhere else besides a soccer field playing a meaningless game, especially a Brazilian team that suffered a “deep scar” after its humiliating six-goal loss to Germany in the semifinals.

The Netherlands’ coach, for one, doesn’t want to be there, and doesn’t care who knows about it.

This match should never be played. I have been saying this for the past 10 years,” said Holland Coach Louis Van Gaal, who has a fairly taxing travel schedule ahead of him. After the third-place game, Van Gaal will fly back to the Netherlands for an official World Cup celebration, almost immediately travel to England to be introduced as Manchester United’s new coach and then board a plane for Los Angeles, where Man U will begin training for its upcoming English Premier League season.

But in FIFA’s eyes, the third-place game serves a purpose. For one thing, it gives FIFA another game to televise, and thus another game to sell to television networks. For another thing, people actually watch the game, both live (91,500 watched the 1994 third-place game at the Rose Bowl between Sweden and Bulgaria) and on television. In “Soccernomics,” Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski’s 2009 book that casts a statistical light on how the game works, the authors pointed out that the third-place game has provided a 4.9 percent boost to the tournament’s television ratings as a whole, “only slightly less than the semifinal effect.”

According to FIFA’s official report on TV ratings for the 2010 World Cup, the third-place game in South Africa between Uruguay and Germany was the 14th-most-watched match of the event (out of 64) in terms of global television viewers at 245 million (counting both viewers of the live telecast and viewers of replays or tape-delayed telecasts). It scored more global television viewers than four of the eight round-of-16 matches and two of the four quarterfinals.

Fine, so people watch the game. But FIFA also uses the third-place game — a glorified scrimmage — to tabulate the winner of the Golden Boot, given to the World Cup’s top goal scorer. The winner has sealed the award three times in the third-place game: Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci in 1990 (on a penalty kick, no less), Croatia’s Davor Sukor in 1998 and Thomas Mueller of Germany in 2010.

The third-place game also is used in compiling FIFA’s already-questionable global team rankings, which are used to seed teams for competitions.

Yes, some teams and their fans give great meaning to the game, especially the ones who rarely taste World Cup success. After Sweden beat a barely trying Bulgaria side, 4-0, in that 1994 game at the Rose Bowl, the Blagult were given a hero’s welcome back home with a parade in Stockholm. The Swedes have been back to the World Cup only twice since then, making the round of 16 in 2002 and 2006. And Croatians still fondly remember their team’s third-place win over the Netherlands in 1998 in that country’s first World Cup appearance. Croatia has failed to advance past the group stage in its three World Cups since.

But will the Netherlands, which has now reached the World Cup’s final four yet come up short of the title five times, or Brazil, coming off the most humiliating defeat in that country’s proud soccer history, care all that much on Saturday? Considering the circumstances: probably not.

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