Third Place Consolation: Should FIFA Abolish The Losers’ Bowl At The World Cup?

Main Entry: con·so·la·tion
Pronunciation: \ˌkän(t)-sə-ˈlā-shən\
Function: noun
Date: 14th century

1 : the act or an instance of consoling : the state of being consoled : comfort
2 : something that consoles; specifically : a contest held for those who have lost early in a tournament

In private meetings, according to David Maraniss’ biography When Pride Still Mattered, the legendary NFL coach Vince Lombardi called it the “Shit Bowl”, “a losers’ bowl for losers.” He was referring to the now-forgotten National Football League equivalent of this Saturday’s 2010 World Cup Third Place Game between Germany and Uruguay: the Playoff Bowl (official name, the Bert Bell Benefit Bowl), that ran from 1960 to 1969, and whose introduction was probably more inspired by the now-defunct third place game in the NCAA men’s college basketball championship (that ran until 1981) than its FIFA World Cup equivalent.

The playoff bowl originated in 1959 as a vehicle for the National Football League (NFL), then facing fierce competition from the American Football League (AFL) some years before the two merged, to get an extra post-season game on television: before 1959, the winners of the Eastern and Western Conferences in the NFL played for the Championship, and that was that. By pitting the runners-up from each Conference against each other to play for third place on national television the week before the championship game, the league doubled its post-season exposure.

Following the AFL and NFL merger in 1966, a new playoff structure was introduced in 1967. Four teams now advanced to the playoffs. The Playoff Bowl — the Losers’ Bowl — survived a couple more years, but it had lost importance for NFL television exposure due to the expansion of the playoffs. It disappeared into the dustbin of history; the NFL, perhaps with Lombardi’s words ringing in their ears, has struck all the Playoff Bowl games from their official competitive record, now classifying them only as exhibitions. For the record, the Detroit Lions have the most third place finishes in the NFL, winning three Playoff Bowls. Lions as Losers? Pah.

Also often forgotten is that the FA Cup featured a third place game for a short period from 1970 to 1974. The first such game saw Manchester United claim third place over Watford, in front of a crowd of just over 15,000 at Highbury, Brian Kidd scoring twice. The games appear to have been dropped four years later due to a lack of interest.

Bowling Green Tournament, Consolation Game Silex vs Louisiana

Louisiana Bulldogs, winners of the Consolation Game at the Bowling Green Tournament, 2008.

Which brings us to Saturday’s game. Is it a Losers’ Bowl, something FIFA should abolish as an anachronism, perhaps pretending it never existed in the first place, as the NFL tries to do with its Shit Bowl? Or is the World Cup Third Place Game, in fact, often the provider of entertaining games and curious moments we should cherish, as Mark at Two Hundred Percent points out:

So the World Cup third-place play-off is the most meaningless match in international football? Holders of tickets for England’s Wembley friendly against Hungary in (count ‘em) five weeks may have a view. There wasn’t a great sense of that meaninglessness when England were in the 1990 version, with Bobby Robson as animated as he ever was when exhorting England to “now go and win it” after David Platt’s late equaliser against Italy. And, more pertinently, Bulgaria’s Hristo Stoichkov wasn’t beating the ground with indifference in 1994’s game when he had to make do with a share of that tournament’s “Golden Boot” (the laces and the insole?) after hitting the post.

So it is that Miroslav Klose, if fit, Diego Forlan, Thomas Mueller and even Luis “the Cat” Suarez can find meaning in this year’s “consolation match.” Certainly nations who appear less regularly in the later stages of international tournaments seem to regard third place as something worth playing for. South Korea and Turkey certainly had a go in 2002, Croatia cared in 1998 – as many bruised and battered Dutch players could testify. Sweden’s third place in 1994 was hugely celebrated – even though they’d been finalists in 1958. Poland took justifiable pride in their third places in 1974 and 1982 (the former making England look good after Poland knocked them out in qualifying). And England themselves in 1990…

I met someone yesterday who told me he was a connoisseur of third place games; preferring them, he said, to the World Cup final (admittedly, he was about to finish a half-pint of whiskey he’d apparently all drank himself). More uncertain narratives, lower stakes, more goals (this is statistically true; check it!), an underdog game you can root for as a curiosity event in itself.

We should also note its distinction from the Playoff Bowl: The World Cup third place playoff match was not invented for television, unlike its NFL counterpart. It was first played in 1934, long before the World Cup was broadcast on television, presumably in a similar spirit as the Bronze Medal game played in Olympic Football Tournaments before 1930, then the most important global soccer competition. In the 1928 Olympic tournament, Italy destroyed Egypt 11-3 in the Bronze Medal game to claim third place. Indeed, the consolation did not stop there: an entire consolation bracket was also played out featuring teams knocked out even earlier in the tournament.

I am unsure — and would like to know why — a third place game was not played at the 1930 World Cup, the only time the World Cup has had a knockout phase that hasn’t included a playoff for third place (the United States were posthumously awarded third place by FIFA due to their overall better record than Yugoslavia at the tournament).

Yet though it wasn’t invented for television, it may indeed survive because of television: as Soccernomics points out, the Third Place Game is popular on television, providing a 4.9% boost for the tournament’s ratings as a whole, “only slightly less than the semifinal effect.” Maybe you don’t know why you watch it; but you do. It might be a Losers’ Bowl, but it’s a winner for FIFA, and it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

Photo: eagle102.net on Flickr, under a Creative Commons License.

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