As England prepare for their entirely necessary Nations League third-place play-off, we take a look at some of the great bronze medal match moments. While all human existence is ultimately futile, there is surely no greater example of the desperate pointlessness of mankind’s endeavours than the third and fourth place match.
After the adrenaline-fuelled drama of a semi-final, the loser’s play-off is football’s walk of shame. Players feel awkward playing in it and fans feel awkward watching it. Alan Shearer once described the World Cup third-place match as: “Utter stupidity. The last thing any player wants,” which should definitely be a poster quote for all third-place play-offs.
But before you decide to skip Sunday’s epic against Switzerland for the right to be the third best team in a competition nobody has truly got to grips with, it’s worth remembering the rich history of the 3rd-place play-off.
France 6-3 West Germany – World Cup 1958
One man who was able to get pumped up for a third-place play-off was Just Fontaine. The French striker scored four goals against West Germany to take his total to 13 for the tournament, taking full advantage of the fact that the other players on the pitch really couldn’t care less.
Even more impressive is that fact that Fontaine wasn’t wearing his own boots at the time. The players had brought two pairs of boots each but his had worn through so he had to borrow some from benched teammate Stephane Bruey. We presume that Bruey got the boots back after they had been coated in gold.
Turkey 3-2 South Korea – World Cup 2002
The 2002 World Cup will always be remembered fondly for its giant-killings and the exploits of a South Korea team aided by some of the most biased refereeing ever to grace the sport. The South Koreans saw off Italy in the last 16 thanks to a performance from referee Byron Moreno that set the high bar for bad refereeing for generations to come.
Moreno looked off the pace throughout but his real moments of madness came when he ruled out a Damiano Tommasi winner for Italy wrongly and then gave Francesco Totti a second yellow for diving after he’d been clearly taken out. By the time Ahn Jung-hwan scored a golden goal, Moreno’s name was a swear word in Italy.
The Moreno story just got stranger from there. He was suspended from the Ecuadorian league for adding 13 minutes of mystery extra time to a game and celebrated his return to refereeing by showing three wrong red cards in a game. Amazingly, Moreno went from criminal refereeing to just criminal when he was caught smuggling heroin into New York on a flight from Quito.
Italy goalkeeper Gigi Buffon finally got the last laugh with the immortal quote: “Six kilograms of drugs? He had them in 2002 but not in his underwear, in his system”.
The third-place play-off lacked any drug smuggling but it was a five-goal thriller and included Hakan Sukur’s fastest goal in World Cup history after 10 seconds.
Uruguay 2-3 Germany – World Cup 2010
We may not associate Germany with finishing third, but they’re really pretty good at third place games having won them in 1934, 1970, 2006 and 2010.
When Thomas Mueller scored the opener it looked like a routine victory, but Edinson Cavani scored a sensational volley to level it. Diego Forlan and Marcelo Jansen exchanged second-half goals but Sami Khedira netted a late winner.
After a tournament of shithousery, topped off by Luis Suarez’s infamous handball against Ghana that denied the Black Stars a last-minute winner before beating them on penalties, Uruguay weren’t letting up for this one and it was a bad-tempered, explosive encounter that for 90 minutes made everyone forget that there really was nothing much at stake.
Uruguay returned home as heroes – nasty, cheating heroes – while the Germans received the slightest of congratulatory nods for an acceptable third-place.
Holland 1-2 Croatia – World Cup 1998
It’s fair to say that this one did matter to the Croats, who were taking part in the World Cup for the first time and had already delighted the watching world by stunning Germany 3-0 in the quarters.
Every neutral had fallen in love with a side containing the likes of goal machine Davor Suker, midfield general Robert Prosinecki and defensive madman Slaven Bilic and they had become household names, albeit badly mispronounced ones.
And then there was that kit, which suddenly became the go-to football hipster accessory at five-a-side.
Suker’s winner against Holland earned him the Golden Boot and the team returned home to wild celebrations while clubs fell over themselves to sign the stars of the tournament, knowing with certainty that they would never play that well again.
Stoke 3-2 Everton – FA Cup third-placed match 1971
Okay, so this one isn’t a classic, in fact, it’s quite the opposite but nothing embodies the futility of the third-placed play-off better. Nobody remembers it but for a brief period in the 1970s, there was an FA Cup third-placed match before literally everyone realised that was a terrible idea.
This cracker between Stoke and Everton gets the mention partly because there were five goals but also for the fact that it was played at Selhurst Park and barely 5,000 people went to it. Realising there was limited allure to the third-place match, the FA decided to play the game in the following pre-season, so three months after the FA Cup final.
Stoke (again) lost to Birmingham City in the first ever FA Cup penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw the next year and the FA kept on with the third-place play-off until 1974 when Burnley beat Leicester 1-0 in front of 4,400 people and it was scrapped never to be spoken of again.