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Is it time for the World Cup to say goodbye to the third place playoff?

Saturday 14th July 2018

In case you missed it, the World Cup finalists are now set. France and Croatia meet in Sunday's final but before we have the Lord Mayor's show on Sunday, we must sit through the padre's sermon, aka the third-place playoff on Saturday. Twenty-two players will take the field wishing they were pretty much anywhere else other than the Krestovsky Stadium, St Petersburg. 

Traditionally, the World Cup dedicates a match to decide third place. This has happened in all but two World Cups. In 1930, there was no playoff and instead the USA, can you believe it, were awarded third place based on their better record than Yugoslavia across the tournament. In 1950, the final stage of the tournament was a four-team group, not a one-off final. While Uruguay defeated Brazil in the Maracana, Sweden secured third place ahead of Spain in Sao Paolo. 

Traditionalists will be keen to keep the fixture in place. FIFA are happy to accommodate them. It's another payday and a surprisingly healthy one. Even so, it's past time the game's governing body put player's health first, respect for clubs' investment second, and their profit third.

We hear a lot these days about rotations and resting players. A top-level player is usually exhausted and, in at least some minor fashion or two, injured when a long, gruelling season concludes. In a World Cup year, they battle through that for national pride and the tournament itself is extremely demanding. Players who reach the semi-final have played five matches and must deal with the pressure of making the final. Two teams will reach the game's pinnacle; two will be emotionally crushed. A tired, broken athlete who has come so close to a World Cup final doesn't need to be kept away from their families and homes any longer than necessary. To be put on display for one more cash grab borders on cruelty. The likelihood of injury makes it an even worse idea.

Of the seven World Cups I can remember, the third place matches all escape me. I know who played because I can vividly recall the semi-finals. I am not alone. I polled my Twitter followers and received 450 responses. Seventy per cent favoured scrapping the game. Obviously, that's a relatively small sample size and derived from something of an echo chamber, but I can't honestly think the rest of the world would be up in arms if FIFA elected to discontinue the match. Traditionalists are a dying breed. 

As it stands, England and Belgium will go through the motions on Saturday. The Golden Boot will be all that is at stake. Romelu Lukaku must have a day to overtake Harry Kane, but the question is whether either will play? The group match between the two countries was a dead rubber, too, and more like a B international. Both managers made changes. We might see something similar on Saturday.

So, like it or not, there's a game to be played and a third place to be won. Will we remember the result in four years? You might. I probably won't. 

Gerry Johnston

I am a 33-year-old sports writer from Ireland who enjoys watching European football. My main focus is La Liga, but I do keep a close eye on all of the major leagues throughout the world.


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