Croatia v Morocco – glorious proof that third-placed play-offs really do matter


We do not have third-place play-offs in the Champions League, the Europa League or the FA Cup.

UEFA has not bothered with bronze medals at the European Championship since 1980. No need, you might think, given European teams keep winning them at the World Cup.

Croatia’s 2-1 victory over Morocco in Qatar on Saturday earned them a second set of bronze medals after their 1998 triumph, of sorts, against the Netherlands. European teams have now won 17 of the 20 consolation-prize contests at World Cups and 11 in a row.

But what’s the point? It’s a game nobody wants to play and few can remember who wins, right? Nobody makes the defeated semi-finalists in Olympic boxing tournaments fight for third place, do they?

And since when did football care about bronze medals anyway? Runners-up, maybe, but that is only so hardened winners can throw them into the crowd.

But that’s all nonsense, isn’t it? That is the type of thing fans from a country that has never won a World Cup bronze medal match say.

Croatia’s players enjoy their third-place play-off victory (Photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

I suspect fans from Austria, Chile and Turkey think World Cup third-place play-offs matter. And I bet fans from Poland and Sweden think their bronze-medal winning sides are absolute legends.

Certainly both Croatia and Morocco felt that way, after this absorbing, chaotic contest.

“Congratulations to my team on winning the bronze medal,” said Croatia manager Zlatko Dalic. “It was a great match. Congratulations also to Morocco, who put up a great fight, despite their injuries and fatigue. I know how they feel — they remind me of us and our run to the final last time.

“But for us this bronze medal has a golden glare. This is the end of a journey, the end of a process. It’s the moment we work for and it’s the most emotional moment of the World Cup.”

Sounds like Dalic thought the match was worth playing.

“The Argentina game is behind us now and I don’t want to talk about it,” said Josko Gvardiol, the man of the match and many people’s pick for the tournament’s best young player award.

“But we made our comeback tonight. We knew we had to be focused and show grit. And that’s what we did. We deserve the third-place medal and now we’re going home to celebrate.”

Morocco’s players surround referee Abdulrahman Al Jassim in the game against Croatia (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

When asked if he thought he should win the best youngster gong, too, he said: “I am not interested in any such award — what I care about is this bronze medal.”

Another happy participant, then.

But they would say that, wouldn’t they? They’re not dragging their tired bodies to the airport after two buzz-killing defeats, are they?

Well, Morocco’s coach Walid Regragui was also not talking as if this was simply a glorified friendly, even if he was still anxious to trumpet his team’s unexpected achievement in reaching the semi-finals.

“We’ll take stock tomorrow morning and realise that this has been a fantastic achievement,” said Regragui, the people’s choice for manager of the tournament if not the voting panel’s. “We’ve had the opportunity to play Croatia, twice, France, Spain, Portugal and Canada, great teams, and we’ve had some great performances. We’ve shown that if we work hard, we’ve got a great future.

“Even though we’ve lost tonight, we’ve learned a lot. Africans love football and we have shown what African teams can do. We have gone toe to toe with the best European teams and only small details separate us.

Mislav Orsic curls home a superb second goal for Croatia (Photo: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

“Football makes people dream, especially children, and with all we have achieved, we’ve kept those hopes alive, all those dreams of going to a World Cup. That’s priceless.

“When Jose Mourinho was at Manchester United he talked about winning being in their DNA. That’s why the European teams keep winning. Look at Croatia. They keep doing it because they have the experience. That is what we want but you build that DNA gradually.”

He finished his upbeat assessment by telling reporters that his team of African pioneers should not be considered the continent’s best crop of footballers until they had won an African Cup of Nations.

“Before you’re king of the world, you need to be king in your continent,” he said. “Long live Africa!”

I could give you dozens of other reasons why the 63rd match of the 2022 World Cup was worth playing — Croatia’s classic “one from the training ground” opener, Mislav Orsic’s peach of a winner, another chance to see the 37-year-old Luka Modric weave his magic on football’s greatest stage, Morocco’s gung-ho attacking as time ran out, the 44,000 fans who loved the spectacle, to pick just a few — but ultimately there is only one reason that really matters.

Were you not entertained?

If you weren’t, football’s not the sport for you, I’m afraid. Try judo, taekwondo or wrestling, perhaps. They don’t do third-place play-offs.

(Top photo: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)


Related posts

Leave a Comment