World Cup 2022 briefing: why the third-place playoff is worth watching

Morocco’s coach has called it a ‘booby prize’ but there are still reasons to tune in

The main event

It is quite easy to forget about the third-place playoff at a World Cup with everyone focusing on the final. But who could forget Poland 3-2 France in 1982? Or Turkey 3-2 South Korea in 2002? Or even whatever happened when England played Belgium four years ago?

Today, there is a chance for two more countries to make history in the bronze-medal match. Croatia face Morocco for the chance to call themselves the third-best team on the planet, which is not a bad claim to have in your back pocket. Here is an attempt to give you six reasons to be joyful about the match.

1) Bidding an international farewell to Luka Modric
After 162 caps (assuming he plays) the Real Madrid midfielder is set to bow out for Croatia. Modric is yet to confirm his international retirement but it looks likely. Either way, at 37, he will not be back for another World Cup. He made his international debut in 2006 and has aged like a fine armagnac. There is no doubt Modric is a key reason his country reached the final four years ago and came so close to repeating the feat in Qatar. Rightly adored in his homeland as one of the most elegant passers of the ball in the world game, Modric will leave a strong legacy behind him and another World Cup medal would be a lovely way to depart.

2) Morocco could make more history
Already the first African nation to reach a semi-final, Morocco could become the first to get a podium finish at a World Cup. It would be a positive ending to the tournament for the side that have given it so much. They have achieved greatness, outlasting almost everyone’s predictions. To lose their final two matches would be a sad way to leave Qatar for a side that have shone brighter than most.

3) Last chance to earn a move
There are players in each squad that have shown themselves capable on the world’s biggest stage, creating interest from potentially bigger and better-paying club employers. These players will be eager to prove themselves one final time to ensure they stand out for the scouts. Consistency is important for players, so a lowering of standards should not be accepted by them or their coach, especially when they are looking to better themselves.

4) The ‘booby prize’
Morocco’s head coach Walid Regragui has described this match as a “booby prize” but, importantly, it is still a prize. In the TV quiz show 3-2-1, presented by Ted Rogers, losing contestants would get a model of the show’s mascot Dusty Bin as a small token of their failure. They were utterly worthless at the time, but now would surely sell for hundreds of pounds. So, even if the players are not too keen on the match, that bronze medal might come in handy one day.

5) History for Croatia, too
Since joining Fifa in 1992 after becoming independent from Yugoslavia, Croatia have created a remarkable competitive record. In their first World Cup in 1998 they finished third after losing to France in the semi-final, beating the Netherlands 2-1 in the playoff thanks to goals from Davor Suker and Robert Prosnecki. Croatia failed to make it out of their group in 2002, 2006 and 2014 and failed to qualify in 2010 but went all the way to the final in 2018. Now they are 90 minutes away from another top-three placing. Since 1998 only France and Germany have made it to the final four more often than Croatia, not a bad record for a team that are barely 30 years old.

Croatia’s players celebrate with their bronze medals in 1998
Croatia’s players celebrate with their bronze medals in 1998. Photograph: Action Images/Reuters

6) Another chance to see Infantino
It seems within seconds of any World Cup match starting, the camera pans to Gianni Infantino looking glum in the stands. The host broadcast camera operator always knows where to find the Fifa president, allowing the world to celebrate his greatness. Rarely has he looked happy when watching a match but he is always there, committed to the cause like a parent on muddy sidelines every weekend. He will make the best of the occasion to celebrate football as a cohesive power for good or some such, while ignoring the empty seats. And if that does not entice you, then nothing will.

PS: it turns out Belgium beat England 2-0 to clinch third place in Russia. Who knew?

It was a World Cup like no other. For the last 12 years the Guardian has been reporting on the issues surrounding Qatar 2022, from corruption and human rights abuses to the treatment of migrant workers and discriminatory laws. The best of our journalism is gathered on our dedicated Qatar: Beyond the Football home page for those who want to go deeper into the issues beyond the pitch.

Guardian reporting goes far beyond what happens on the pitch. Support our investigative journalism today.

Talking points

Will illness derail France’s push for back-to-back titles?
France preparations for the final have been hit by a virus that has spread through the camp since the semi-final win over Morocco. The same illness that struck down Adrien Rabiot and Dayot Upamecano before the semi-final has reportedly been picked up by Ibrahima Konaté and Raphaël Varane. Both defenders impressed as they stood firm under intense pressure from Morocco and it would be a huge blow if one or both missed out. The French forward Randal Kolo Muani said: “I think everyone has been careful. The doctors have put in place a hygiene system to avoid the virus spreading.” Has that hygiene system worked well enough, though? GB

Where have all the red cards gone?
Let’s be honest, some of the most vivid World Cup memories centre around red cards and on-field pandemonium – think Zinedine Zidane’s 2006 butt, the sound and fury of England v Argentina 1966, or Argentina being reduced to nine men in the rancorous closing stages of the 1990 final. With the exception of the Netherlands v Argentina in the quarter-finals, Qatar 2022 has been curiously bereft of all this. There have been only four sendings-off in this tournament, three of which took place in the closing stages of matches and only one being a straight red. That went to Wales’s Wayne Hennessey for his full-frontal felling of Iran’s Mehdi Taremi – and only after the VAR intervened. This continues a trend set at Russia 2018, when the number of dismissals tumbled from 10 in 2014 to four. There were a whopping 17 in South Africa 12 years ago. Whether this is a consequence of VAR, improvements in defensive discipline or less officious refereeing is hard to tell. But it’s been striking nonetheless. TD

Wales's Wayne Hennessey is shown a straight red card against Iran
Wayne Hennessey is the only player to be shown a straight red card at this World Cup. Photograph: Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Beyond the football

An app providing migrant workers in Qatar with information on their rights and the possibility of legal assistance has been launched by three trade unions, the first definitive legacy for workers exploited in the process of delivering the World Cup. The failure of Fifa and football associations to deliver positive change for workers has led the the international players’ union Fifpro, the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) and the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) to take action into their own hands by developing a digital platform to provide employment support. A joint statement read: “With the Fifa World Cup coming to a close on 18 December, International Migrants Day, Fifpro, BWI and IDWF remain committed to supporting the advancement of migrant workers’ rights and conditions. The global unions encourage collaborations from all stakeholders to ensure that the working conditions and fundamental human rights of all workers involved in and around football tournaments are respected and protected.”

Global media-watch

With the semi-finals in the rearview mirror, the press in Qatar are predictably extolling the success of hosting the tournament. According to Jinan Al-Sabbagh in Al-Raya, “Qatar won great acclaim … for the impressive success of organising the world’s largest tournament. Qatar amazed the world and made it the pride of the Arabs”. Al-Raya is seen as the semi-official paper of the Qatari state, and said the country “acted as a link that embraced the cultures of the world thanks to its hospitality and the morals of the generous Qatari people.”

Muhammad Qasabi reported for Al Sharq on a press conference held by the Qatari Sports Media Committee which declared that “all the visitors to the World Cup, including athletes, media professionals and fans, have discovered a truth other than that which some western media outlets reported to them, and this is the first gain from Qatar hosting the World Cup”.

Argentina fans at the Doha Corniche, taking in a view of the city lights
Argentina fans at the Doha Corniche, taking in a view of the city lights. Photograph: André Penner/AP

For Al-Watan, the lead story on Friday was of childhood dreams fulfilled, writing: “A decade ago, attending World Cup matches from the stands was a childhood dream for soccer fans in the Arab world. The exorbitant costs of travel and hotel reservations, as well as the remoteness of the countries that usually win the organisation of the championship, were reflected in the reluctance to engage in this experience.” All that, the paper says, has changed.

The Peninsula was thrilled that there would be some Qatari representation right at the end of the tournament, with Abdulrahman al-Jassim assigned to referee the third-place playoff. The Croatia head coach, Zlatko Dalic, was less impressed, saying: “Fifa has now taken on a huge risk on itself … I hope that we will not be talking about the referee after the match.” The English-language Qatar Tribune, meanwhile, was keen to stress that “several British journalists have noted that Qatar has presented an outstanding model in its World Cup hosting”. The small catch in that story? All of the people interviewed were working for the Fifa website. MBe

Today’s live match

Croatia v Morocco, third-place playoff (3pm GMT, BBC One) Walid Regragui spoke on Friday of his desire to be “on the podium”, which suggests a more purposeful approach to the third-place playoff than that shown in recent tournaments. Belgium beat a listless England four years ago while a traumatised Brazil succumbed meekly to the Netherlands in 2014. “My players still have that appetite, they want to finish well,” said the Morocco head coach. “Finishing well” could be the key here, because if there’s one area in which a fine side slightly let themselves down in Qatar it was in taking their chances. Croatia and Morocco shared a reasonably entertaining goalless draw in the group stages and each have improved since then. This should be well worth watching, even if tiredness and injuries – particularly in Morocco’s case – may take their toll. TD

The Morocco coach Walid Regragui at a press conference
Walid Regragui feels third place is the World Cup’s “booby prize” but recognises the importance of finishing on the podium. Photograph: Karim Jaafar/AFP/Getty Images

The internet reacts

Even in a surprisingly dull press conference Gianni Infantino managed to provoke a reaction from many by casually announced there will be a 32-team men’s Club World Cup from 2025, likely to follow the same format as the current Fifa World Cup (unless it is replaced by a 48-team one in 2026). His revelation was made even though no agreements have been made with the relevant domestic leagues, so you can imagine how this went down in some quarters.

From 2024 to summer of 2025, a player who also represents his nation could play a Copa América/Nations League/AFCON/other, a full regular season, cups, Champions League, WC qualifiers...and now, a new Club World Cup w/ expanded teams.

This is just abuse on a player's welfare.

— Luis Miguel Echegaray (@lmechegaray) December 16, 2022

Like the ridiculous idea of @FIFAWorldCup every two years, this is another one from Infantino. Players need rest at some point, they are getting treated like cattle. FIFA hate the CL & want something similar themselves.
European clubs should boycott it.

— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) December 16, 2022

Fifa shamelessly introducing new competitions such as a men's 32-team Club World Cup in 2025 and "World Series" in the March of World Cup years; a Women’s Club World Cup and Women’s Futsal World Cup. Fifa putting revenue and politics ahead of player welfare.

— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) December 16, 2022

Player to watch

Azzedine Ounahi We can expect Morocco players to figure prominently in the transfer gossip columns next month, and Angers will face a battle to cling on to the busy yet elegant Azzedine Ounahi, who has been an outstanding presence in one of the best midfields in this tournament. Ligue 1’s bottom club could pretty much name their price, if so minded, for a player whose energy, creativity and intelligence have been fundamental to Morocco’s run to the last four – both as an attacking presence and as an aid to that parsimonious defence. It is to be hoped he gets a full run-out once more on Saturday against Croatia, having come closest to scoring for Morocco when the sides met in the group stages, only to be denied by another of this tournament’s emerging stars, the goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic. TD

Angers’ Azzedine Ounahi could be a target for clubs all over Europe in January
Angers’ Azzedine Ounahi could be a target for clubs all over Europe in January. Photograph: Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

And finally …

After making jaws drop with his “Today I feel gay” press conference at the opening of the World Cup, there was much anticipation about what outrageous lines Gianni Infantino might spout in his closing press conference. It turns out he didn’t say anything too outlandish at all, apart from lauding the Qatar World Cup as the “best ever”. In fact, most of the reaction on social media was about how late the Fifa president was for his own show.

12 hours after the FAI's abandoned AGM, I've turned up for a 12.30pm press conference with Gianni Infantino that's apparently going to be at least an hour late starting. Experiencing a kind of Woodstock for football administration

— Gavin Cooney (@gcooney93) December 16, 2022

Today, I feel… late.

Infantino keeping us waiting for his press conference

— Miguel Delaney (@MiguelDelaney) December 16, 2022

Infantino doing his bit to repair relations with the media by being an hour late for his closing press conference.

— Josh Noble (@JoshTANoble) December 16, 2022


Will Unwin, Gregg Bakowski, Tom Davies and Martin Belam

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