By Oris Aigbokhaevbolo
The second semi-final at the World Cup, a loss for the Dutch team against Argentina after 120 minutes and penalties, meant the team from the Netherlands was relegated to the third place match. That was enough to get Dutch Coach Louis Van Gaal’s goat. “This match should never be played,” he said.
“I’ve been saying that for 10 years – it’s unfair.”
Apparently, only one medal counts, gold, the Jules Rimet trophy, number one.
Four days later, he cracked a smile at the end of that derided third place match. They had defeated host Brazil, adding three to the seven goals collected from the Germans. Brazil had just shipped 10 goals in two matches and Van Gaal, oblivious to Brazil’s suffering was smiling with his crew. Star player Robben was smiling too, he had been outstanding as he has for the duration of the tournament. Skipper Van Persie celebrated a penalty like he had scored via a long-range Zlatan bicycle kick. Despite Mr. Van Gaal’s complaints, third place didn’t seem too bad.
Sunday, 24 hours later and it will be the victors from both semi-final matches played almost a week earlier—not enough time to forget a 7-1 drubbing if you are the loser, but enough time for euphoria to give way knowing there’s one more hurdle. Germany made light work of Brazil and yet they are in same shoes as Argentina who won with hard work and luck.
At the end of 90 or 120 minutes, the referee will blow the whistle and one team will have lost. The bigger picture—second place out of 32—will not matter. The devil is in the immediate: one will have lost a match. And no one loves losing.
The possibility of victory makes sports exciting; the inevitability of loss instils tragedy. Everyone knows the end, that one team will lose. But that has never consoled a losing team. Soccer is not track and field. As there are only two sides, not eight, defeat here is absolute. Winner and loser, not 1st, 2nd, 3rd et al.
Yet the design of World Cup matches, the existence of a 3rd place match in particular, means after a semi-final loss, there is the possibility of salvation.
Only, every possibility in sports is accompanied by its opposite: Salvation may be possible but so too is damnation. This, perhaps, is what had angered Van Gaal so much, that after playing 120 minutes plus penalties, he should have to go through the same emotions with the likelihood of loss. That certainly will annoy even the most equanimous coach.
Turned out he spoke too soon. 3 minutes into the salvation/damnation contest, his side was a goal up. 17 minutes later, they were 2 goals to the good, saving their third and last for the closing minutes of the match. Salvation acquired, Van Gaal smiled and his players celebrated with a lap of honour. They leave Brazil with a victory.
The second placed team will not be as fortunate.
With the World Cup as it is, the second placed team will leave with a loss. If that loss comes in the dying minutes of the game or in as spectacular a fashion as the 7-1 drubbing handed to Brazil, you can be sure there will be tears after the final. And coming second, in a tournament that originally had 32 countries, will do nothing to stem those tears. In a few hours, we’ll know to whom those tears belong: the Germans or the Argentines.
I won’t wait: that team has my sympathies already.
Photo credit, wikipedia, flavorwire