LIAM MACKEY: When it comes to the World Cup, you can’t polish a third

And then there was one. Well, two actually, but the World Cup third-place play-off is definitely one of those nominally competitive fixtures which presents a fairly robust challenge to my old friend Declan Lynch’s wise maxim that there’s never a good reason not to watch a football match.

You suspect that even the loyalty and resolve of the two teams’ respective support bases will be further tested by the fact that today’s meeting of Belgium and England in St Petersburg is the second time the nations have met in this competition with little more than bragging rights at stake. 

Indeed, their previous encounter, in the final game of their group, was mainly notable for the peculiar reality that the luck of the draw meant there was always likely to be a more meaningful reward in losing than winning.

As Harry Redknapp put it, when talking to a few of us in Dublin on Wednesday, in the hours leading up to England’s semi-final against Croatia: “The best result we had was losing to Belgium. Gareth Southgate would have gone back to his room that night and been delighted with that result. Publicly he probably can’t say that. And Roberto Martinez would have been cursing the fact that they won 1-0 and he couldn’t say that. Everybody is trying, no one is not trying not to win, but at the end of the day, we had the path that we took and we ended up with Colombia and Sweden and they had the path that they took and that meant Brazil and France.”

By ‘Arry’s logic then, that 1-0 defeat to the Belgians remains England’s best result of this tournament because, as we all now know, thereafter the two sides’ divergent routes finally ended up in the same place, with both eliminated at the penultimate stage, leaving them to scrap it out today for a bronze medal which has never carried the cachet in the World Cup that it does in the Olympics.

 To paraphrase Bojo, you can’t polish a third.

By common consent, the two best teams out of the semi-final pairings, France and Croatia, have made it through to tomorrow’s decider, although that is clearly not an opinion shared by some of Belgium’s star names, with Thibaut Courtois accusing their conquerors of playing “anti-football” and Eden Hazard sniffily proclaiming that he would “prefer to lose with this Belgium than to win with that France.”

Methinks they doth protest too much. (A polite way of saying sore losers). The defence-first mindset of Didier Deschamps might be imprinted on his team, none of whom shirk a spot of water-carrying, but ‘anti-football’ is just about the last phrase that comes that comes to mind when you see the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Paul Pogba when the mood takes him, and the thrilling Kylian Mbappe on the front foot.

The Belgians would also do well to reflect on the fact they were exceedingly lucky to be playing France at all, after Brazil were sucker-punched by a freak own goal and then succumbed to a moment of magic from Kevin de Bruyne in the quarter-final. 

Roberto Martinez received much praise for his tactics in that game, and his team were undoubtedly impressive in the first half, but a famous 2-1 win hardly told the full story of a match in which the Brazilians squandered a host of chances and were also denied a clear-cut penalty when Vincent Kompany brought down Gabriel Jesus in the box

That moment, incidentally, was a notable example — all the more glaring for being pleasingly rare — of VAR getting things spectacularly wrong. Or, rather, those whose job it is to interpret the video evidence getting it wrong since, contrary to the fears of the Luddites, the technology remains at the service of humans rather than the other way around.

Long-suffering readers will know that your columnist has been championing the introduction of something like VAR ever since it became ludicrously obvious that television viewers were often better positioned to make informed judgments about significant incidents in games than the officials charged with that responsibility on the spot. Still, my nagging concern that the introduction in Russia of a technology still in its infancy might prove premature were hardly allayed by a pre-kickoff chat with Didi Hamman whose experience of its wonky application in the Bundesliga led him to declare that this tournament would be remembered, for all the wrong reasons, as ‘The VAR World Cup’.

But, barring some catastrophic cock-up in the final itself, VAR’s place in the history of Russia 2018 is now destined to be more in the way of postscript than headline, very much consigned to playing second fiddle to the thrills and spills of the football itself. Which is only as it should be.

Elsewhere on these pages today, Liam Brady even hails the tournament as the best he’s seen since Mexico 1970. 

I wouldn’t go quite so far myself — Spain ‘82 remains second to 1970 as my favourite World Cup — but that we can even consider talking about Russia 2018 in such exalted company is tribute enough to a fiesta of football which has surprised, stunned and exhilarated at almost every turn. (Which, incidentally, is one persuasive reason for neutrals to tune into today’s third-place play-off, despite its seeming pointlessness even to those centrally involved).

I would still be inclined to the view that slow-burning Brazil were probably the closest thing to the complete package in this tournament but, unlike the Belgians, I have no complaints at all about France and Croatia going head to head in tomorrow’s decider. 

Quite apart from all the other intriguing elements in the game, any chance to see another outing for the thrillingly effervescent Mbappe and the incomparably classy Modric is one to be relished.

Here’s hoping we get the final this fantastic World Cup deserves.


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