RIO DE JANEIRO — With a few minutes left in the 1994 World Cup third-place match, Thomas Ravelli did cartwheels.
He was the goalkeeper for Sweden, which faced Bulgaria at the Rose Bowl on the eve of the championship game. Like many teams forced to play in the inconsequential affair, the Bulgarians would have rather flown home following a semifinal defeat at the Meadowlands.
The Swedes had a cheerier outlook. They scored four goals before halftime against their uninterested foes, and in the waning moments when the ball was safely at the other end of the field, Ravelli entertained the crowd with acrobatics.
Bulgarian Coach Dimitar Penev grumbled, “This game should not take place.”
Such is the odd nature of the World Cup consolation game, which is taken lightheartedly by some, semi-seriously by others and with disdain or indifference by the rest.
There is not much question where the Netherlands falls heading into this year’s third-place game against Brazil on Saturday at Estadio Nacional in Brasilia.
“There’s only one prize, one award that counts,” Dutch Coach Louis van Gaal said, “and that is becoming world champion.”
Channeling Penev, van Gaal added: “This match should never be played. Teams don’t want to play for third place. I’ve been saying this for 10 years.”
Despite quadrennial calls to abandon the practice, FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has stuck with it. Since the World Cup’s 1930 debut, it has been staged in all but two tournaments. Along with the finalists, the third-place side receives a medal, like in the Olympics. German teams have collected the most (four), including 2006 and 2010 honors.
But unlike Olympic individual sports, there is no glory in returning home with the World Cup third-place team medal.
The European Championship, soccer’s second-most-popular national team tournament, dropped the consolation game after the 1980 tournament. Copa America, the South American event that falls third on the global priority list, did just the opposite, adding a third-place match in 1993.
A third-place game does have value in tournaments sending three teams to a larger competition. Such a format rescued the United States in qualifying for the 2011 Women’s World Cup. After a startling loss to Mexico in the semifinals, the Americans defeated Costa Rica to earn a berth in an international playoff and, ultimately, in the World Cup in Germany, where they finished second overall.
Even without much at stake, some World Cup men’s teams find a purpose. Brazil, for instance. After the humiliation of a 7-1 semifinal defeat to Germany on Tuesday in Belo Horizonte, matching the heaviest defeat in its illustrious history, the Selecao saw a small opportunity to save some face and end the tournament on a winning note.
A bright performance also would begin the reconciliation process with a country dismayed by the freshest result, a match that was all but decided by halftime.
“We have to be professional and show our character,” midfielder Fernandinho said. “We need to play well on Saturday to try to finish third.”
While players and coaches don’t care much for it, fans typically get more than their money’s worth. With low stakes, teams tend to play a more open style and forgo harsh defensive challenges.
In the previous nine tournaments, the final has averaged 2.4 goals and the third-place match 4.2. Four years ago Germany and Uruguay combined for five, culminating with Sami Khedira’s go-ahead goal in the 82nd minute.
The third-place game was the scene of the fastest goal in World Cup history: Turkey’s Hakan Sukur in 11 seconds against South Korea in 2002.
It also provided a forum for Italy’s Salvatore Schillaci (1990), Croatia’s Davor Suker (1998) and Germany’s Thomas Müller (2010) to win the Golden Boot as the tournament’s top scorer but denied Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoitchkov (1994) from claiming the outright scoring crown. Schillaci and Suker broke ties for the scoring lead, and Müller drew even with three others but won out because he had posted the most assists.
The third-place match does carry greater weight when the host nation is involved, something that will occur Saturday for the fourth time in the past seven competitions. It provides the country — and typically a secondary tournament venue — an opportunity to lift the squad’s spirits after a semifinal defeat.
In Brazil’s case, the Selecao already has appeared in Brasilia, a group match against Cameroon. In a cruel twist, the defeat to the Germans meant Brazil will not make any tournament appearances in its most famous arena, Rio’s Maracanã, the site of Sunday’s final between the Germans and Argentina.
Attempting to turn the page quickly after the semifinal embarrassment, Brazil Coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said: “Don’t forget there is a match on Saturday. We can be third.”
The Dutch do not share such optimism.
Of the third-place honor, forward Arjen Robben said, “They can keep it.”
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