It’s one of the most meaningless games in international sport, a match no one wants to play and few will remember when it’s over.
But the third-place game of the World Cup is not going anywhere, says FIFA. This year’s consolation final is between Croatia and Morocco on Saturday and the game is on the schedule for the next tournament in 2026. So the question is why?
As with many things related to FIFA, the answer is money. The World Cup has hosted a third-place match since 1954, and the money it generates from donors and sponsors makes it vital to FIFA’s bank account.
But where else will the losers of the semi-finals meet to decide who is better?
This happens in Olympic sports, but only because there is a bronze medal on the line. Will baseball’s two league championship losers meet in the consolation World Series to separate the third from the fourth? Before the merger with the AFL, the NFL had what was called the Playoff Bowl (originally the Runner-Up Bowl), a televised event that matched the second-place teams of the Eastern and Western Conferences.
It lasted 10 years, never sold, and disappeared without a whimper.
Saturday’s World Cup consolation final pits teams who have met at the tournament, with Croatia and Morocco held to a goalless draw in the opening group stage. Both went unbeaten until the semi-finals, becoming the last unbeaten team – Croatia losing 3-0 to Argentina and Morocco losing 2-0 to France.
So while Argentina and France will face off on Sunday to decide the champions, Croatia and Morocco will face off to decide… nothing really. The winner will receive a bronze medal and $27 million in prize money. The losers get $2 million less and no medals.
With a prize money of $440 million for the Qatar World Cup, the difference between third and fourth place was little more than a rounding error. (There are also medals!)
In terms of reputation, the game is much lower. Even casual fans know that in the 2002 final, Brazil won a record fifth World Cup with two goals from the incomparable Ronaldo. But who won the third-place game that year? (It was Turkey.)
The feeling that both teams did not contribute fully to the consolation final is also confirmed by the final scores, with the losing side unable to score in the last two.
After losing in the semi-finals, the coach of both Croatia and Morocco was not interested in playing for the seventh time in three weeks. Nor were weary players returning to club teams in this unusual World Cup year.
The physical turnaround for Morocco will be as tough as the mental one, as they have suffered several injuries and are less prepared for the day than Croatia.
“It will be a challenge. We have a lot of players nearing the end,” said Morocco’s coach Walid Regraghi, who suffered an injury to defender Nayef Aguerd shortly before the semi-final, while captain Romain Saiss and outside back Nussair Mazraoui were forced to sit out due to injury before the start of the second half. That weakened backline has kept Morocco from scoring in their first five games.
“We gave it our all,” Regraghi added. “They went as far as they could.”
Regragi has no choice but to clear his seats. Of the 26 players on his roster, four have yet to make a single appearance at this World Cup, while another five have played less than 80 minutes. The coach promised to reward some of them against Croatia.
“We have a lot of players who haven’t played much,” he said. “Every player on this team has contributed a lot and hasn’t played a lot of minutes.”
Four of those nine players are under the age of 26 — Morocco were the fifth-youngest team in Qatar — so the World Cup experience could pay dividends. However, ending the tournament with two defeats in four days would open the way for Morocco to make history, becoming the first African and first Arab nation to reach the final four at the World Cup.
Croatia is in a different position. Croatia arrive in Qatar as one of the tournament’s older teams after reaching the 2018 final, losing to France, and Saturday’s game could be the last World Cup appearance for defender Dejan Lovren, 33, and midfielder Luka Modric, 37. , and striker Ivan Perisic, 33. Modric has played more games than any player in Croatia’s history (161), and Perisic is second with 33 goals.
“They made great progress,” coach Zlatko Dalic said. “They are the golden generation of Croatian football.
“A few of them are at an age where it will be difficult to play in the World Cup in 2026.”
And Modrić made it clear that he wanted his last game in the World Cup to end with a victory.
“Win the match and go back to Croatia with a medal,” he said of his goals on Saturday. “To win the bronze medal, we have to leave everything and our fans to celebrate once again.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.