I’ll be honest. I had to work my memory pretty hard to recall anything about England’s third/fourth place play-off with Italy in 1990. I knew we lost, but I had to look up the score. I’m almost certain that I didn’t watch the game and whilst that could have been down to a logistical issue or a prior engagement, I was 13 at the time and very little got in the way of me watching football.
Taking into consideration the lack of research I did into the game despite missing it indicates one thing to me. I didn’t care. Or rather, I couldn’t bring myself to care.
This game is perhaps one of the cruelest fixtures in football. It brings together the nearly-men, the teams who could have contested the World Cup final, but weren’t quite good enough. The game takes place a few days after the semi-finals and on the eve of the final, meaning that the competing teams wounds are yet to heal, whilst the eyes of the world are on the game the following day. It’s a sobering, painful, perhaps even embarrassing spectacle.
Or is it?
Drawing from my 1990 experience and spending a few moments to contemplate how the Brazilians and Dutch will be feeling going into the play-off, it’s hard to imagine that anyone with an emotional attachment or vested interest would want to play a part in this game. For those involved it’s a raw reminder of what could have been.
For the rest of us however, it’s different. For those of us whose teams have long since departed Brazil (or indeed those contesting the final), we have to come to terms with the horrifying fact that this amazing World Cup is almost complete. TV companies and radio stations are busy preparing their highlights montages, and come Sunday night it will be over. Finished. History. Just typing it creates a sickly knot in my stomach.
With the end so close, it’s therefore important to grab every remaining second of this magnificent tournament and that of course includes the third place play-off. For the neutral it’s a marvellous premise. For a start, it’s another game of football to watch, but more than that, it’s that rarest of things, a competitive International fixture where there is really nothing to lose. OK, there is the notional prize of finishing third, but will either Brazil or the Netherlands be worried? I doubt it.
Obviously both teams will want to win, but I’m sure their main focus will be on turning in an impressive performance, finishing the tournament on a high. Brazil in particular have a bit of making up to do, and will be desperate to appease their disgruntled supporters after the semi-final humiliation.
Whilst Brazil have all the motivation they need, I suspect the Netherlands are the worst team they could have faced in this situation. Amongst others, Louis van Gaal and Arjen Robben have admitted that they think the game is a waste of time and that it should be scrapped.
This will in large part be due to the fact that after losing the semi-final, they would rather have flown straight home, but their tone of voice indicates they aren’t putting themselves under any pressure for this one.
A team with players like Robben, Sneijder, Van Persie et al playing without pressure? That sounds dangerous and I think they might just put on a show. Brazil beware…
As attention starts to turn to the start of the new football season here in England, the closest similar fixture I can think of to the third place play-off is the Community Shield. Well, on this occasion it’s the Brazilian community that need a big performance and as neutrals it’s us that stand to benefit from another playing of this controversial fixture.
With just two games left, I’m going to drink in every last meaningless moment.
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