It’s one of the most pointless games in international sport, a match that no one wants to play and few remember when it’s over.
But the World Cup third-place game is not going anywhere, says FIFA. This year’s consolation final is on Saturday between Croatia and Morocco and the game is scheduled for the next tournament in 2026. So the question is why?
As with most things related to FIFA, the answer is money. The World Cup has been played for third place since 1954, and the money from broadcasters and sponsors makes it significant for FIFA’s bank account.
But where else will the semi-final losers meet to determine who is better?
It happens in Olympic sports, but it’s because there’s a bronze medal at stake. Will two major league championship losers meet in the consolation World Series to separate third from the quarter? Before the merger with the AFL, the NFL used to have the Playoff Bowl (originally the Runner-Up Bowl), a televised event that matched the second-place teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences.
It ran for 10 years, never sold out, and disappeared without a whimper.
In Saturday’s World Cup final, the teams that have already met in this tournament will meet. Croatia and Morocco have played a scoreless draw in the opening of their group stage. Both would go on to remain unbeaten until the semi-finals – making them the last unbeaten teams – before Croatia fell 3-0 to Argentina and Morocco were beaten 2-0 by France.
So while Argentina and France meet on Sunday to decide the champion, Croatia and Morocco meet to decide… well, nothing really. The winner will take home the bronze medal and $27 million in prize money. The losers get $2 million less – and no medals.
Qatar’s World Cup prize money totals $440 million, so the difference between third and fourth is little more than a rounding error. (However, there are also medals!)
In terms of appreciation, the game is much less valuable. Even casual fans know that Brazil got two goals from the incomparable Ronaldo to win a record fifth World Cup in the 2002 final. But who won the third-place game that year? (It was Turkey.)
The idea that both teams are not fully invested in the consolation final is also supported by the final results, as the loser failed to score in the last two.
After the disappointment of the quarter-final defeats, neither Croatia nor Morocco coach seemed excited to play for the seventh time in three weeks. The players who, in this unusual World Cup year, are returning to the club teams are not exhausted either.
For Morocco, the physical turnaround will be as difficult as the mental one, dealing with multiple injuries and having one less day than Croatia to prepare.
“It will be a challenge. We have a lot of players in the final stretch,” said Morocco coach Walid Regragui, who lost defender Nayef Aguerd to injury moments before the semi-final and had to leave captain Romain Saiss and winger Noussair Mazraou injured before the start of the second half. This weakened side. the backline did not allow the opposition to score in Morocco’s first five games.
“We gave it our all,” Regragui added. “They’ve gone as far as they could.”
Regragui has no choice but to clean his bench. Four of the 26 players on his roster are yet to appear in a game at this World Cup, with five others playing less than 80 minutes. The coach promised to reward some of them against Croatia.
“We have a lot of players who haven’t played a lot,” he said. “All those players on the team have made a big contribution and haven’t played many minutes.”
Four of those nine players are under the age of 26 – Morocco had Qatar’s fifth-youngest squad – so World Cup experience could pay off. However, ending this tournament with two defeats in four days would be a bitter way to end a World Cup where Morocco made history by becoming the first African and first Arab nation to reach the final four.
Croatia is in a different situation. After reaching the final in 2018, where they lost to France, Croatia arrived in Qatar as one of the oldest teams in the tournament, and Saturday’s game is likely to be the last World Cup for defender Dejan Lovren, 33, and midfielder Luka Modric, 37, and forward Ivan Perisic, 33. Modric is played more games, 161, than any player in Croatian history, while Perisic is tied for second with 33 goals.
“They achieved great things,” coach Zlatko Dalic said. “They are the golden generation of Croatian football.
“A couple of them are at such an age that it will be difficult to play in the 2026 World Cup.”
And Modric made it clear that he wants his final World Cup match to end in victory.
“Win the match and go back to Croatia with a medal,” he said of Saturday’s goals. “We have to leave everything to win the bronze medal and let our fans celebrate one more time.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.