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Sky Sports' Johnny Phillips: Unfair reality of third place play-off game

By Johnny Phillips | Football | Published:

The least-loved football match on earth takes place this afternoon.

Does anyone care who wins between England and Belgium?

The World Cup third place play-off is the pariah of the football fixture list. No manager wants to oversee it, no player wants to take part in it and no supporter wants to watch it. It cannot even legitimately be called a contest. Neither side has the stomach for this particular fight, participating only out of obligation.

Four years ago, the Netherlands coach Louis Van Gaal hit the nail on the head. With the Dutch losing a tense goalless semi-final to Argentina on the finest of margins, by penalties, Van Gaal was forced to remain in Brazil for one final fixture on the eve of the World Cup Final.

“This match should never be played, it’s unfair,” he said.

“There is only one award that counts and that is becoming world champions. The worst thing is that there is a chance you are going to lose twice in a row and in a tournament in which you have played so marvellously well, you go home a loser. That has got nothing do with sport whatsoever, not in my view.”

He is right. Sport is about the contest and the context. This meaningless fixture is stripped of any competitive edge. It serves only to tie up the statistics of the tournament.

Here is another anachronism – the statistical weight attached to this fixture is quite unfair. The golden boot award has been decided by this pointless fixture in the past.

It's a fixture which means little to either side.

Unlikely hero Toto Schillaci at his home tournament in Italy in 1990, then Croatian maestro Davor Suker at France ‘98 and most recently Germany’s Thomas Muller in South Africa in 2010, have all secured the honour with goals in this match.

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Van Gaal’s opponents four years ago were the hosts Brazil. Their credibility had been shot to pieces in front of their own public with that astonishing 7-1 semi-final defeat to eventual champions Germany. There was no chance dignity could be restored with victory in their final match.

It was an unnecessary torture to put manager Luiz Felipe Scolari and his players through one more encounter. A 3-0 defeat to the Dutch piled on further misery as they trudged off the pitch to more jeers from their countrymen in the stands.

Historically, this game has thrown up entertaining encounters, but the inconsequential nature of the event takes away the credibility of these results. Back in 1958, France faced bitter rivals Germany and ran out 6-3 winners, with Just Fontaine scoring four times.

Great goals get lost. In 1978, with Italy leading Brazil, the South Americans equalised with a wonder strike from Nelinho. In a true contest the goal could have laid claim to be one of the greatest ever scored at a World Cup, but as it came in this hollow fixture it carries no weight.

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There is an especially poignant moment in the film Bobby Robson – More Than a Manager during the 1990 semi-final penalty shoot-out between England and West Germany.

As the shootout unfolds, the camera lens pushes in on the England manager as the drama reaches its conclusion. When Chris Waddle misses the final England penalty condemning the team to defeat there are a few short seconds, before Robson rises to shake hands with his opposite number and console his team, when he ponders the enormity of what has just happened. His heart is broken. The emptiness. The ultimate goal in his illustrious managerial career has been taken away.

It was a touching moment and summed up the pain of a semi-final defeat. That was the tournament for England right there. Nothing else mattered. Certainly not the rigmarole of another fixture.

Italy 1990 - Semi Finals - West Germany 1 - 1 England (4 - 3 pens)

Now, 28 years on, England will compete in this apology of a match again. What must the players make of it after that monumental and energy-sapping semi-final in Moscow on Wednesday night?

Gareth Southgate may even try and accentuate the positives. A chance of game-time for previously unseen players like Jack Butland and Danny Welbeck. But it is impossible to disguise the reality of a third place play-off. There are no benefits to be had.

Spare a thought too for Belgium who have had to loiter around in Russia for an extra five days like the last guests to leave a house party, wandering around the kitchen and getting in the way of the hosts clearing up.

It is tempting to wonder what would happen if both teams decided not to turn up today. If the squads had just headed off to the airport after their semi-finals and left the country. What would the sanctions be for failing to fulfil this joke fixture?

If anything it would surely enhance the CVs of Roberto Martinez and Southgate if they had taken their teams home early.

Imagine them being door-stepped at the airport as they landed back at their respective homes.

“Yeah, well to be honest, I couldn’t be bothered hanging around for the game and the lads didn’t fancy it either so we thought we’d head back and get a couple of days’ extra holiday. It’s been a long season, do you know what I mean?”

Who could possible blame them?

These two teams went out in the semi-final. Those are the facts of the matter. There is nothing else to be gained or lost. Who will come third this afternoon? Who cares?

Johnny Phillips

By Johnny Phillips

Sky Sports Soccer Saturday pundit, giving his thoughts on football across the country.

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