The World Cup 3rd-place playoff is stupid and amazing and you have to watch it

Buda Mendes

The third-fourth place playoff is, in the eyes of many, a useless exercise that should be swiftly abandoned. But if history tells us anything, it's that they can also be really quite fun.

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The first thing we should acknowledge is that the third-fourth playoff is stupid. Of course it is. It's a ridiculous idea; these are two sides that want nothing more than to crawl off into a darkened room and sit in the corner crying and eating jam straight from the jar. Instead they have to come out and play another game, one that means nothing. Louis van Gaal, Netherlands' manager, believes they should never be played. Jose Mourinho thinks they're a "very, very bad idea ... [players] just want to go home and cry."

But with that granted and admitted, we nevertheless need to confront another truth, an awkward reality about these meaningless exercises, which is that they are frequently, at least to the watching neutral, pretty brilliant.

What happens when you force two international sides that have had excellent tournaments but are now past all caring? Stupid things happen. Entertaining things happen. So do goals, usually; there have been three or more goals in every playoff since 1978, something which can't be said about modern finals. Indeed, last time around the playoff, which finished Germany 3-2 Uruguay, was arguably the best game of the entire tournament, though that perhaps tells a different, slightly sadder story.

A few things are at work here. As a rule, each consecutive World Cup game matters more than the last, as a side takes one step after another closer to the big shiny golden globe thing. But once that's gone, well, the pressure's off. It's a relaxation that comes from failure rather than inner peace, yes, but it's still quite rare to be given the opportunity to watch these players play in a tournament with the weight removed to a certain extent.

The personnel are often different too: World Cup semi-finals, being super-important games that come at the end of an intense few weeks, are physically and often emotionally draining affairs. This means that when it comes to the playoffs, managers are often obliged to be merciful, or have the freedom to indulge themselves. Particularly goalkeepers, who don't see much substitute action over the actual tournament. Hans-Jörg Butt played for Germany in 2006, and trivia fans among you may like to note that should the Netherlands pick Michel Vorm, then they will become the first side to use an entire 23-man squad in the course of a tournament.

This can backfire, of course. In 1982, after losing one of the all-time great semi-finals to West Germany, France rang the changes for the playoff. Out went Michel Platini, Didier Six, and first-choice keeper Jean Luc Ettori; in came the back-ups, including goalkeeper Jean Castaneda for what would turn out to be his last international appearance. It did not go well. Nothing he could do about Poland's first goal, but the quality of his missed punch for their second was matched only by the space he left at his near post for the third.

A few players have taken the opportunity to grab some personal glory in the playoff: Just Fontaine's all-time record of thirteen goals in one tournament includes four against West Germany in the 1958 playoff. (That probably annoys some people, but then some people are always annoyed.) Others have signed off in less spectacular fashion: the sight of Peter Shilton shambling after Italy in 1990 is frankly heartbreaking. Confirmation, perhaps, that it was a tournament too far for the great goalkeeper.

But perhaps the most charming aspect of these games is the opportunity it give to those teams that have surprised and delighted by getting further than they really should. The list of World Cup winners is a fairly predictable crowd; the list of bronze medallists, though, includes as well as the usual suspects the likes of Turkey, Croatia, Sweden, Chile and Poland, twice. Each a team that nobody really expects to see hanging around the final four; each a team that were rewarded for their run to the sharp end with something tangible, if not hugely important. South Korea against Turkey, in front of the world, in something final-shaped. Doesn't happen all that often. Nor do goals after 11 seconds.

Coming back to the present day, the prospect of watching this Brazil side try and play football again is tantalising, albeit in a slightly grubby way. How will this side recover from an unprecedented hiding? How will they be received? There is, reportedly, the strong possibility that half the stadium won't turn up, and that those who do decide to amble along will do so with the express purpose of telling Luiz Felipe Scolari and his team precisely what they think of them. Now, nobody wants to see Thiago Silva standing in a half-empty stadium while his country barracks him and his team past the point of tears but, well, it would be hypnotic television.

The thought of a zombified Brazil shambling through the game is not a happy one, but it is to be hoped that they can relocate a bit of confidence, a bit of moxie, and actually try to play some football. For the Dutch will doubtless play some football back. This Netherlands side have surpassed all expectations in getting this far, and the noises coming out of the Dutch camp are a mixture of pride at their progress and irritation at the manner of their exit. Apparently Louis van Gaal has asked his assistant, Patrick Kluivert, to address the players on just how it felt to lose to Croatia in 1998. One suspects that they'll be up for this.

No, the footballers don't want to play it and the managers don't want to manage it. But hey. We don't want them to shut down the midfield, string six across the back and play for penalties from the opening minute, but that doesn't stop them. Do we complain? Well, only a little bit, and we understand why they do it. So you owe us something meaningless, stupid and fun, footballers. A semi-exhibition match between two emotionally-broken, physically-ravaged teams is the least we deserve.

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