Though they may have fallen at the penultimate hurdle, both Croatia and Morocco have the chance to salvage a little extra reward for their impressive World Cup campaigns when they come head to head in Saturday’s third-place playoff game.
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Some fans tend to view the playoff with an air of contempt, forecasting a slightly underwhelming contest wherein two defeated, dejected semifinalists attempt to muster the motivation to go again in search of one last consolatory victory.
However, the truth of the matter is that the World Cup third-place playoff is historically a very high-scoring affair and even where Golden Boots have been won through the years.
A third-place finish at the 2022 World Cup would also be a huge coup for Morocco, who have already come further in the tournament than any other African nation in history. Few predicted that the Atlas Lions would even make it through the group stage so a place on the podium would be the icing on the cake for Walid Regragui’s underdogs.
Furthermore, Saturday’s playoff may be the final World Cup match of Croatia captain Luka Modric’s long and distinguished career, though his coach hopes he will play on until Euro 2024, and the 37-year-old midfielder will no doubt be hoping to add a bronze to the silver medal he won with his country after finishing runners-up at Russia 2018.
International and individual pride aside, there are a plethora of other good reasons for fans to tune into the game, and here are but a few of the most compelling:
Goals, goals, goals
There are always goals in the playoff. Always. In fact, since the first bronze medal match in 1930, not a single playoff has finished goalless in regulation time and thus been settled on penalties. Indeed, the game hasn’t seen fewer than two goals scored in regulation time since Poland’s 1-0 victory over Brazil at the 1974 World Cup.
Of the 19 World Cup third-place playoffs contested since 1934, only three have featured just one goal scored — 1962 (Chile 1-0 Yugoslavia), 1970 (West Germany 1-0 Uruguay) and 1974 (Poland 1-0 Brazil.)
Four of the last seven games (since USA 1994) have featured four goals or more goals, with 26 scored in total. In that same period of time, only one actual World Cup final has featured more than four goals (France 4-2 Croatia at Russia 2018) and there have been just 15 goals scored overall in regulation time.
Goals per game
Over the entire history of the World Cup, a grand tally of 73 goals have been scored in 19 third-place playoff games (there were no playoffs at the 1930 and 1950 tournaments) versus 77 goals scored in 21 World Cup finals.
As such, while there have been more goals scored in finals, the playoff boasts a slightly higher average goal-per-game ratio (3.84 goals per game) than the final itself (3.66.)
Hakan Sukur still holds the record of the fastest-ever goal scored at a World Cup, when he netted for Turkey after just 11 seconds of the third-place playoff game against South Korea in 2002.
Unburdened by the all-consuming pressure of the semifinals, the third-place playoff tends to see teams throw caution to the wind and adopt more expansive, attacking tactics in a knockout game that nonetheless has more of an “exhibition” feel.
Even so, the playoff is still counted as an official World Cup game and therefore goals and assists registered can prove vital when it comes to post-tournament awards. For example, three players have scored precious goals in third-place playoffs that saw them win the Golden Boot.
The first was Italy striker Salvatore “Toto” Schillaci, who scored a late winner from the penalty spot to secure a 2-1 victory over England at Italia 1990 and claim the Golden Boot into the bargain.
Since then, Davor Suker of Croatia (1998) and Thomas Muller of Germany (2010) have both notched crucial goals in the playoff to leap to the top of the goal-scoring charts at those particular tournaments.
While it’s only right that the World Cup final takes centre stage when it comes to the annals of international football, the third-place playoff also boasts its own fair share of quirky historical points of interest.
With four bronze medals in their cabinet, Germany hold the record of finishing third on most occasions at the World Cup since the tournament was inaugurated in 1930. Meanwhile, a total of four countries — Poland, France, Sweden and Brazil — have finished third twice.
Uruguay have contested the most third-place playoffs (three) without ever managing to win one, finding themselves fated to finish in fourth place in 1954, 1970 and 2000.
Spain and Qatar 2022 finalists Argentina are the only two World Cup-winning nations to have never featured in a third-place playoff. However, La Roja did finish fourth at the 1950 World Cup but the tournament was played in a round-robin league format and as such did not include a playoff.
Third place has been something of a bad luck charm for European clubs in the past 40 years. Poland (1982), France (1986), Italy (1990), Sweden (1994), Croatia (1998), Turkey (2002), Netherlands (2014) all failed to qualify for the next European Championship.