The third place playoff (sometimes called the bronze medal game or consolation game) is a single match that is included in many sporting knockout tournaments to decide which competitor or team will be credited with finishing third and fourth. The teams that compete in the third place playoffs are usually the two losing semi-finalists in a particular knockout tournament. The third place playoff has been criticised by some who feel that the match serves little purpose, but others see this game as an occasion for the losing semi-finalists to salvage some pride. The third place playoff has also been criticised because a double-elimination would be required to deem second place. Most notable competitions are single-elimination format, which may cause the top sides to face each other before the semifinals or final match.
Most sports using a knockout format in the Olympic Games have a third place game to determine who wins the bronze medal, with the exception being boxing which awards two bronze medals (judo, taekwondo, and wrestling, which also award two bronze medals, both feature two bronze medal matches, between the losing semi-finalists and the winners of the repechage). As the difference between a bronze medal and no medal is quite significant, competitors still take this game seriously. The Rugby Union World Cup used to give automatic qualification to all teams in the top three of the ongoing tournament to the one that would follow it four years later thus making the game important, but this was later scrapped after the 1999 edition of the tournament allowing teams outside the top three to automatically qualify depending on their IRB co-efficient in the rankings.
However, many sports tournaments do not have a third place playoff, mostly due to a lack of interest from the competitors and also from the fans. Interestingly, two of the most celebrated knockout tournaments had featured the third place game for a period of time — the FA Cup Third-fourth place matches (1970–1974) and the NCAA Men's Division I Basketball Championship (1946–1981). For most of its years, the NCAA consolation game held interest because it usually featured two nationally ranked teams in which only a few teams qualified for the tournament. However, as the field expanded beyond 32 teams, the game lost significance. In addition, eliminating the game allowed the losing teams to return home rather than remaining in the Final Four city for an additional two days to play a game many believed was irrelevant. A third place playoff still exists in the postseason National Invitation Tournament (NIT); some consider it "the consolation game within the consolation tournament".
The National Football League had a consolation game, the Playoff Bowl, from 1960 to 1969, which pitted the second-place team in each of the two divisions (based on regular season record from 1960 to 1966) against each other. It was abandoned in favor of the current playoff structure with the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
FIFA World Cup and other Association Football TournamentsEdit
The 1980 edition was the last UEFA European Football Championship to have a third place match. That was one of the few third place football matches ever to be decided by a penalty shootout, where Czechoslovakia defeated hosts Italy 9-8.
The FIFA World Cup, like the Rugby World Cup, also features a third place playoff, usually on the day before the final. It is often there to provide a spectacle as there is often a gap of a few days between the semi-finals and the final. The third place playoff is considered a lower-priority match to organizers, as it is frequently scheduled in one of the smaller stadiums; the largest stadium (usually located in the host nation's capital city) is reserved for the final, while the semi-finals occupy the second and third-largest stadia. However, the third place match in the 1994 World Cup did use the Rose Bowl stadium, the same venue that would later host the tournament final, setting a record attendance of 91,500 for a third place playoff in FIFA World Cup history. The third-place match in the FIFA Women's World Cup has been somewhat more important to the organizers—the 1999, 2003, and 2007 matches were all held in the same stadium as the final. In fact, the 1999 and 2007 third-place matches were both held as the first half of a doubleheader that culminated in the final. The 2011 third-place match will return to the more traditional scheduling of the day before the final in a different stadium. Notably, the 1999 third-place match was the curtain-raiser to the most-attended women's sporting event in history, the 1999 final also held in the Rose Bowl.
The third place match is generally a high-scoring affair, as no men's match has seen fewer than three goals scored since Poland's 1-0 win over Brazil in 1974, while all bronze-medal games since 1994 (except for 1998) have seen four goals or more. For tournament top scorers, the third place match's tendency of attacking football is a great opportunity to win the Golden Shoe, with players such as Salvatore Schillaci (1990), Davor Šuker (1998), and Thomas Müller (2010) getting the goal they needed to take sole possession of the lead. The FIFA Women's World Cup has had only five editions to date, therefore creating less opportunity for a pattern to form. However, two of the third-place games in that competition have seen fewer than three goals. In 1995, the USA defeated China 2–0. In 1999, the third-place match between Brazil and Norway ended in a scoreless draw and penalty shootout (won by Brazil), as did the final between the USA and China (won by the USA).
How seriously the competing teams take this match is subject to debate. Certain teams, especially ones which had been expected to reach the final, will rest some of their starters to allow some of their reserve team players to participate in a World Cup game.
However, teams that are not expected to get this far usually take this match seriously, as third place can be a historical achievement. The best example of this was Sweden in 1994 who called the match "the bronze match" and after victory they landed at Arlanda with a fighter escort and were then paraded through the streets of Stockholm to millions live on national TV. Another example was in 1998, when the recently established Croatian football team upset the Netherlands.
If the host nation is involved in the third place match, the team generally uses the match to thank the support of their fans (such as the South Korean football team in 2002, and the German football team in 2006. German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn, who had been a reserve to Jens Lehmann during the 2006 tournament, was allowed to retire in the third place playoff by then manager Jürgen Klinsmann. Germany and Portugal fielded strong lineups in that match, after both were narrowly eliminated in their respective semi-finals (Germany and Italy nearly went to a penalty shootout, while Portugal was defeated by the lower-ranked France), so the 2006 third place playoff was seen by some as a "what if" final.
Germany currently holds the most third place finishes in the (men's) World Cup, their most recent in 2010. The USA has the most third-place finishes in the Women's World Cup, with three; they have never finished in any position other than first or third.