MOSCOW — The worst game of the World Cup will take place on Saturday, an utterly pointless exercise yet one that you can probably gue$$ the rea$on$ for.
It is the third-place playoff, a sleepy stroll that serves the purpose of filling FIFA coffers a little more, ensuring the action-free gap between the semifinals and final is not too long, and generally pisses everyone off.
Bronze medals mean something at the Olympics. They don’t at the World Cup, and they don’t in soccer generally — nor in most team sports.
Belgium and England will square off in Saint Petersburg in what will be a futile exercise for both teams, neither of whom want anything to do with it.
England coach Gareth Southgate managed to give a comment that both toed the diplomatic line yet left no doubt as to his true feeling about the match.
“The honest thing to say is it’s not a game any team wants to play in,” Southgate said. “We have two days to prepare. We will want to give a performance of pride; any time we wear the shirt of our national team we want to do that. But it will be a very difficult task to get everyone back to where we want them mentally.”
Belgium’s Roberto Martinez expressed a similar sentiment. “It is a difficult emotion to manage,” Martinez said. “You are disappointed you lost the semifinal. It is difficult to almost see the opportunity to play another game as a positive.”
Is FIFA so clingy that it can’t let people go and watch Wimbledon or the Tour de France or whatever else for a couple of days? An extra day off would actually serve to add even more hype to the match that matters more than any other, Sunday’s final between France and Croatia at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium.
In truth, it plays a lot better for FIFA to be able to tell its potential broadcast rights holders that this is a 64-game tournament, with never more than two consecutive rest days. It is not transformative to a deal, but it might add a percentage point or two to contracts that are worth in the hundreds of millions.
When people ask in future years what happened to England and Belgium at this World Cup, the answer will be that they lost in the semifinals. Not that they came third or fourth. No one cares.
Yet why not play devil’s advocate here for a moment and wonder if FIFA is on to something? What if other American sports began adopting the equivalent of the third-place game, which has the feel of the NIT Tournament and far less excitement?
What if the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Minnesota Vikings, fresh off their respective championship game losses at the end of the last NFL season, had to pack up a week later and meet each other for the bronze Lombardi. Aside from the fact that the NFL Players Association would throw a fit, one of the teams would get to pick up a cute little medal, while also having the rare distinction of playing in the one game more irrelevant than the Pro Bowl.
Or how about the NBA Conference finalist Houston Rockets and Boston Celtics getting back up after their Game 7 defeats to play each other for third? Heck, why not play a whole best-of-seven series, to help fill in the scheduling gaps in the NBA Finals. Yeah, no thanks.
Soccer’s coaching staffs show FIFA what they think of the borefest for bronze with their team selections. In most cases, the lineups are unrecognizable from what would be considered a full-strength team for either side.
Coaches, quite understandably, try to get some of the players who have not featured in the tournament a bit of playing time. Forwards who are in contention for the Golden Boot as top scorer try to pad their numbers. The crowd doesn’t really get into it. It is about as lame as it gets.
The World Cup saves the best for last and the worst for second-to-last. Time to let it go, and time to let the players involved, like everyone else who no longer has a chance to win the World Cup, go home.