Derided match has a history of records
12 July ~ This evening Brazil and Holland meet in a match neither wants to contest. The World Cup third-place play-off is often regarded as an annoyance. Many pair it with the opening ceremony as one of the tournament's necessary evils. Yet this fixture has provided the setting for some of the records, drama and spectacular goals intrinsic to World Cup history. It's been the historic pinnacle for some nations, has sealed a few individual reputations and, after four hectic weeks capped two years of qualifying, it's a nice contemplative pause.
Holland and Brazil are two great World Cup nations. The fallout from Brazil's first competitive home defeat since 1975 adds voyeuristic spice but, for pre-tournament title contenders, the bronze medal match feels like confirmation of failure. In 1978 Germany, knowing they couldn't make the final, were rumoured to have thrown the last of their second round group games, against Austria, simply to avoid the play-off. They began that tournament as holders. Ironically, Nelinho and Dirceu's stunning strikes to claim bronze for Brazil, against Italy, provided two of the competition's best moments.
Conversely, South Korea had never impressed at the World Cup until co-hosting it in 2002. Their narrow semi-final defeat represented more achievement than failure. Korean efforts, on and off the field, deserved the lap of honour provided by the play-off with Turkey. England players and fans may feel similarly about their 1990 game against Italy in Bari. It was a relaxing curtain-call for both nations. A painful semi-final penalties defeat to Germany dissipated into a realisation England had exceeded expectations. The hosts, eliminated by Argentina in traumatic circumstances in Naples, were glad to "get back on the bike".
From 1962 to 1978, and in 1994, the third-place match was played in the same stadium as the final, usually the day before and always to huge crowds. Far from an empty ceremony, finishing third has crowned the greatest achievement of proud football nations such as Portugal (1966) and Poland (1982). That the lead twice changed hands when Germany beat Uruguay 3-2 in Port Elizabeth four summers ago – and that Germany will go at least one better this summer – demonstrates former champions can regard third-place as part of a resurrection.
In the 2002 play-off, Turkey's Hakan Sukur scored after 10.8 seconds, still the fastest goal in finals history. Without the play-off Hungary's Sandor Kocsis would still hold the record for most goals in a single tournament. His 11 in 1954 was outdone four years later by Just Fontaine of France who went into the third-place match on nine but hit four goals in the 6-3 thrashing of Germany, also equalling the then record for goals in a single match.
Italy's Toto Schillaci (1990), Croatia's Davor Suker (1998) and Germany's Thomas Müller in 2010 all claimed FIFA's Golden Shoe with goals scored in this fixture. Fontaine also joined the elite band to have scored in every round: even a "vase game" is still a final. There was no play-off in the first World Cup. Any retrospective third-place award is complicated by the fact the US and Yugoslavia both lost their 1930 semi-finals 6-1. Such historical uncertainty torments those of us who never get out on a Saturday night anyway. Alex Anderson