Mike Gibbons

Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of this event.

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The importance of being third

    ĎWe donít care about finishing thirdí Michel Platini said in 1982. His indifference was understandable. France had just lost the ultimate heart-breaker against West Germany in the World Cup semi-final in Seville, succumbing on penalties twenty minutes shy of midnight. Forty-four hours later they were expected to rouse their weary limbs to play Poland, hundreds of miles away in Alicante, in the third/fourth place playoff.

    After the emotional uppercut of losing a World Cup semi-final surely the players would rather go home and mourn their missed chance rather than go through the motions against eleven like-minded souls for the sake of protocol. The European Championships doesnít see the need for this fixture, and Iím sure the Czechs and the Dutch appreciated being able to go home and sulk when they were eliminated in Portugal two years ago. Grief is personal and does not need to be put on public display.

    FIFA however defend this fixture with zest. True sportsmen care about finishing third ahead of fourth they say. In a European league perhaps, where finishing third can get you into the Champions League at a comfortable qualifying round, but not a cup competition. It often takes on the feel of a testimonial, and with the intensity and pressure thus removed from the World Cupís penultimate fixture it descends into a half-hearted exhibition between two teams that quite blatantly arenít that bothered, with the players thinking about the holiday they need to squeeze in before pre-season training.

    However this fixture does have its uses. If it did not exist for example, Salvatore Schillachi and Davor Suker would not have been able to claim the golden boot outright; the world would have been deprived of Nelinhoís amazing goal against Italy in 1978; Just Fontaine would have left Sweden in 1958 with nine goals instead of his record thirteen in one tournament, and just four years ago Hakan Sukur would not have scored the quickest goal in World Cup history.

    So when Germany and Portugal take the field in Stuttgart today they will contest the pretty irrelevant right to finish third at this World Cup. Portugal achieved this forty years ago with their Eusebio driven team in England, but you must wonder what finishing third would mean to a German nation raised on winning football tournaments. It is more of a chance to say thank you, from the team to the fans for their incredible support and the fans to the team for ever so briefly making Germany believe they were on top of the football world again. Oliver Kahn looks set to play his first game of the tournament and Miroslav Klose will be looking to add more goals to secure the golden boot for himself, although his lead over his remaining rivals is pretty unassailable.

    Luiz Felipe Scolari has in the past few days expressed his annoyance about having to play this fixture, with the understandable difficulties of motivating the players taken into account. If their reception on Wednesday night is anything to go by Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo in particular will still be booed and whistled like pantomime villains, confirming their place as the most unpopular team since Argentina in 1990. In England particularly most people want to see Portugal finish as low as possible and find themselves in the unusual position of wanting Germany to win. As for Ronaldo he seems to be taking the blame for everything and anything possible at the moment. The way things are going if they re-opened the files on the JFK assassination some deluded English patriot would probably be able to place him on the grassy knoll.

    Having not scored a goal in over four and a half hours the Portuguese attack will at least want to register on the score sheet today. With their lack of any invention in attack it is amazing that they have made it so far. Pauleta has been as anonymous in this World Cup as he was in Euro 2004, and how on earth Luis Figo has found his way into FIFAís squad of the tournament when Juan Roman Riquelme was omitted is beyond me. Not as mystifying as the exclusion of Rafael Marquez or the inclusion of Ze Roberto, but still baffling and a probable testament to the golden aura that comes with playing for Real Madrid.

    When the game commences today it will be in a strange atmosphere, thoroughly in keeping with the oddity of this fixture. Now the expectancy has gone the German fans should create a carnival atmosphere, except of course when Portugal are in possession. For the tournamentsí sake I guess the right result would be a win for the home team, Klose securing the golden boot, a last hurrah for Kahn and an ignominious and unsatisfying end for Portugal. The German players can do their lap of honour and wave their goodbyes, but ultimately both teams will be remembered for what they didnít do on Tuesday and Wednesday rather than what they might do today.



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