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Third-place games do matter

No one wants to play for bronze, but everything is a matter of pride.

I must have misread the tournament schedule because on the day of the third-place game of the African Cup of Nations, I woke up thinking the final was to be played. When I realized my mistake, I booed no one in particular.

The problem with third-place games in these international tournaments is they’re easy to forget. They’re afterthoughts.

In the general context of team sports and tournaments, it seems bizarre to have a game for third place — beyond the extra opportunity for profit. Teams are playing for a chance to be named as second loser. It’s almost an insult to the competitive nature and pride of the athletes involved, to force them to play in what is essentially a meaningless game. Players routinely toss away second-place medals after losing in the final; it’s hard to imagine many being excited to be awarded bronze.

After England lost to Sweden in the third-place game of the women’s World Cup, England’s manager Phil Neville called it a “nonsense game.” Sweden scored two goals in the first 20 minutes, and Neville reasoned that the bad play from his team in those minutes was because they were still disappointed in their inability to make the final.

After his comments were met with criticism, Neville defended his position.

“We came to this tournament to finish first,” he said. “A third- or fourth-place game, we’ve not disrespected it. We wanted to win more than anything. But we wanted to win gold. That’s why I said it’s nonsense.”

Neville’s defense seems reasonable. I wanted Nigeria to win AFCON. I spent the time leading up to and during the tournament convinced that Nigeria would win. Until Riyad Mahrez scored his freekick.

The Mahrez goal was heartbreaking, and I spent the rest of that day and the days after avoiding all replays and talk about its supposed glory. To me, that was the definite end to Nigeria’s time at the tournament, and I wanted to move on from that disappointment as quickly as possible.

Then I remembered there would be a third-place game against Tunisia. The nonsense game. A consolation prize for those who weren’t good enough to make it to the final. A game that was sure to be of terrible quality played with little effort.

In the first few minutes of the match against Tunisia, Odion Ighalo scored for Nigeria and I screamed in celebration, which shocked me. Again, this was a nonsense game I had booed earlier. After Ighalo’s goal, Tunisia didn’t sit back. They doubled their efforts going forward. They attacked. They created chances. Took shots on goal. Players got frustrated after those missed chances, berated teammates for bad decisions and yelled at the referee for missed calls. Nothing about Tunisia or Nigeria gave the impression that the game didn’t matter.

One of the people who criticized Neville’s denigration of the third-place game was Siobhan Chamberlain, who was on the 2015 England team that won bronze in Canada.

“Try telling the 23 players that went to Canada that a bronze medal match is a ‘nonsense game,’” she said. “Winning a medal ... is a great achievement and I guarantee you that every player out there today wanted a medal just as much.”

After Neville’s England conceded the two early goals, they reacted the same way that Tunisia did against Nigeria. They fought back. They dominated the match after those two goals, scored one of their own, and had it not been for a disallowed second goal, would have surely won the game.

England’s disappointment about not making the final might have hindered them in the first 20 minutes, but the third-place game mattered to the players. I was at a packed English pub — Elephant and Castle — in Lyon watching the game, and from what I saw there it also mattered to the fans who celebrated the goal with the same fervor they had when England was playing for a chance at making the final.

The idea the third-place game is nonsense asserts the pride of the players selectively. Players do want to win the whole tournament, and they are prideful in that chase. But they’re also prideful in most other games, especially when it comes to international tournaments. Playing for one’s country is nothing if not a display of pride in a shared identity, and most players see it as a privilege.

As a concept, the third-place game is a construct — a match for the sake of having a match. For profit. A way to fill in the gap between the semifinals and the final. But on the field, players still treat it as important. No one who watched England against Sweden or Nigeria vs. Tunisia could argue the players weren’t taking the games seriously. Winning bronze is nothing like winning gold, but it’s still a match to be won for one’s country.

There’s this cliche in sports — and one viewed as the proper attitude for winners — that no one remembers the losers. It’s a stupid idea that has never been true, and it’s disrespectful to the complexity of how sports and teams are appreciated.

The Netherlands have never won a World Cup, but several generations of their team have been greatly enjoyed and influential to the sport. Michael Ballack’s Germany didn’t win an international tournament, but that squad and their efforts aren’t forgotten now after Germany has become successful. Neither is the Cameroon team of 1990, Argentina of 2014 (even with their final disappointment), or the England team of 2004, Ghana in 2010, or Ivory Coast’s golden generation. If people only remembered winners, we would live in a bland and joyless world, where so many fun and important teams would be dismissed because they didn’t satisfy a cliched view of why fans are invested in teams.

When Nigeria beat Tunisia, the players celebrated and I celebrated with them. I was happy for them, and proud. Though they won’t win the tournament, this Nigeria team was still enjoyable to watch and deserved a medal for their efforts. The third-place game might be a consolation, but when the prospect of gold is gone, all that’s left is pride. It may not matter to people who see the sport in binary terms, but football, and why people care about teams and games, has never been so reductive.