This World Cup has been one of the best ever. There have been plenty of upsets, surprises, goals and comedy moments (special mentions to Neymar, Germany and a Gareth Southgate lookalike downing pints in the stands). This weekend the tournament will reach its crescendo with the final taking place in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Sunday in front of an audience of more than one billion people.
On Saturday, as some form of completely underwhelming warm-up act, there will be the most pointless game in sport, the dampest of squibs in an otherwise thrilling competition: the third-place play-off match.
Why this even exists is a complete mystery. Losing a semi-final is when footballers are at their absolute lowest. They have spent weeks away from loved ones, training single-mindedly in a foreign country to reach their childhood dream of winning the World Cup. Instead, after losing the most important match of their career, they must hang around a further few torturous days, doubtless training like zombies for a play-off that means nothing.
The England team of Italia ’90 is remembered so fondly. The finest team since 1966, they lost in the semi-final. Did they win the play-off? Did they come home with a bronze medal? No one remembers, and no one cares either. Beating your fellow losing semi-finalists is no form of consolation to elite athletes who only came to compete for football’s biggest prize. This game should be abolished and never contested again.
Rio Ferdinand won the league six times with Manchester United, as well as the League Cup and the Champions League. When doing punditry for BT Sport and commenting on the losing players in a cup final as they trotted up to receive their runners-up medals, he remarked that he didn’t even know where his losers’ medals were. Goodness only knows what Ferdinand would have done with a third place medal should he have ever been given one.
On The Guardian’s World Cup podcast, they joked whether England’s reserve team would be out to seek revenge on Belgium’s reserve team in a potential replay of the pointless group stage game that the two played out when already qualified earlier in the tournament. Countries see this as an opportunity to give the fringe players a chance to play the World Cup. Full-strength sides don’t contest this game and that is exactly why the world’s worst consolation prize game must be scrapped. It isn’t even taken seriously by those ‘competing’ in it.
There is nothing that can be done to make this game interesting – conventionally, at least. They could introduce rules like outfield players must go in goal, or players can only score from outside the box. That would make it more watchable for spectators but it probably wouldn’t go down well with footballers slowly recovering from their lowest ever moment in sport. Let’s end this charade once and for all, and not let the penultimate game of a brilliant competition be a reserve match between two thoroughly dejected squads.