In a few hours, England and Belgium will go head-to-head for the second time in the Russia 2018 World Cup, this time to decide which of the two countries will finish third at the tournament.
Unlike the Olympics where the philosophy is that participating IS the victory, not necessarily a win, football is a game of ‘firsts’- the winner takes it all. Many players and their managers are contemptuous towards even the second place medal- they remove it almost as immediately after they’re given. So why is there a need for a third place match?
It was introduced at the second world cup competition in 1934 as a consolation match for the Germany and Austria. Since then all FIFA World Cup tournaments have had a third-place playoff. Unexpectedly, teams approach it with some measure of perfunctoriness; it does nothing for their reputation when all eyes are already on the final coming up the following day.
“The honest thing is it’s not a game any team wants to play in,” said England manager Gareth Southgate after his team lost out to Croatia on Wednesday. Given that fans won’t remember who finished third or fourth at a world cup, his glibness is understood.
It’s the second time Belgium would be involved in a third-place match. In 1986, they faced France in the penultimate match of Mexico 86 and lost in extra time. It’s a fate they would hope to avoid in 2018 having come just short of the high expectation football fans had for this team. Touted as the ‘golden generation’, the Red Devils flattered to deceive and were outdone by rampant France.
England too would be hoping to put to rest the ‘years of hurt’ that has haunted them since their 1966 triumph. In 1990, they lost to eventual winners Germany in the semifinal and were attempting to be the third placed. Italy (who were hosting again that year) beat them and left England at an ignominious third. They were awarded the ‘FIFA Fair Play’ prize.
However, Croatia- who stand a very valid chance of becoming world champs tomorrow- had a different approach when they played the third-place match at France ’98. As a new country that had just recently been survived a bloody war of independence from the former Yugoslavia, they defied every odd by even getting to the semifinal. When they defeated the Netherlands in the third-place match, the whole world rejoiced with them and heralded a new dawn for the troubled country. The icing on the cake was striker Davor Suker scored one more goal and won the Golden Boot with six goals.
One man who would definitely win the Golden Boot at Russia 2018 is England striker Harry Kane. With six goals to his name already, the third-place match provides him with the opportunity to extend his lead over Romelu Lukaku (four goals) as well as Frenchmen Antoine Griezman and Kylian Mbappe (three goals each).
Whatever happens to his team, Kane will have very little complaints about his own personal achievement this football year. He won the Golden Boot in the Premier League last year and is well on course to win the same at the World Cup.
The FIFA World Cup third-place match kicks off by 3 pm today at the St Petersburg Stadium.
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