The arc of this World Cup nears its completion. Over prosperity and poverty, over cities and shores and jungles, over fair winter and fiery winter, it ascended, curved, and now looks to settle, in Rio’s Maracanã on Sunday.
But first, the midweek semifinals. Four teams remain, and four heavyweights at that—Argentina, Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands. Two of these will paint the enduring portrait of this World Cup.
There’s hardly a World Cup whose final image hasn’t occurred in its final match. Think of Holland’s Nigel de Jong’s karate kick to Spain’s Xabi Alonso’s chest in 2010; or Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt in 2006; or Ronaldo, who’d sat out most of the past three seasons because of knee injuries, scoring the only two goals of the 2002 final against Germany; or Zidane’s two first-half goals against Brazil in the ’98 final, and the strange sight of Ronaldo, then at the height of his powers, seeming to struggle to stay on his feet; or the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year, Roberto Baggio, missing the decisive penalty against Brazil in Los Angeles in 1994; the euphoria of Paolo Rossi in ’82; the Dutch scoring in ’74 against West Germany in West Germany, within two minutes of kickoff, and with the Germans yet to touch the ball; and on, and on.
All eyes are on the finalists. The memory machine is ready to fire. And because finals happen in the absence of other games, the possibility of something great floats in the mind, waiting to be ruined. In a very real sense, the World Cup is already over, but for the comparatively minor business of settling which of these four teams will win and what lasting image the two finalists will leave us with.
And yet before Sunday’s final, there’s Saturday’s game, which for me carries the same weight—not for its importance, but for the window it provides into the people who play. This will be the third-place game, in which the losers of the two semifinals meet to decide who finishes third and who finishes fourth. Finals are dreamscapes, heavy shimmering things. The spectacle and competition make a final less about its players and more about the game itself; the players fill a void that’s been waiting for them, as even now such voids are waiting in the Moscow of 2018 and the Qatar of 2022. But that third-place game …
While the semifinalists of the World Cup prepare for their games with the taste of victory still fresh, the third-place game is a consolation for losers. Whether you lost 4-0 or to a last-second goal, there you are. There are times when national pride and/or a collective feeling of fleeting opportunity coaxes one final good performance out of a team. There are other occasions in which the semifinal loss still stings too much, a nation having expected much more than third from its team.
In urban planning, cultural studies, and sociology, there’s a concept called third place invented by Ray Oldenburg. If home is the first place and work is the second, the third place is an intermediary area to create and foster community—the setting where you hang out and become a regular among regulars—the barbershop or hair salon, the record store, the pub, the bowling alley. In a sense, the third-place game is similar. It’s a kind of setting, a place for the player who made that critical mistake in the semifinal, jumping for a ball with the opposing player who missed his penalty; for the substitute who hasn’t gotten a minute of playing time, and who now gets his chance to start; for the fans who can cheer for their team at this game because they’re still there, and so what else are you going to do? (Similarly, the players, perhaps for the first time in a long time, relax, because they’re still there, and so what else are they going to do?)
The results of the last seven third-places World Cup matches are 3-2, 4-2, 2-1, 4-0, 2-1, 3-2, and 3-1: there will be goals. But soon enough the players’ bodies will hold no sway; all will be images and language again. That must weigh on some of their minds. To lose a final is to be a runner-up, and some are legends; to finish third is to have won something, at least, even if only freedom from having finished fourth; and finishing fourth … what is fourth?
In the case of the World Cup, it may be the loneliest number of them all.
Rowan Ricardo Phillips’s second book of poems, Heaven, will be published next year. He is the recipient of the 2013 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award and a 2013 Whiting Writers’ Award.