Bronze winners find silver lining
BRASILIA, Brazil -- What is the point of this thing?
An entire sport contemplated that question, in one voice, as soon as the participants in the third-place game were decided.
As Netherlands manager Louis van Gaal said, minutes after losing to Argentina in the semifinal: "I think this match should never be played. ... This game has nothing to do with sports in my opinion. But I said this 10 years or 15 years ago and nothing changed."
Or as Van Gaal's star winger, Arjen Robben, said shortly after that: "In my opinion, they should abolish it all together. The World Cup is about one thing only: the Cup."
Or as Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho put it when talking to Eurosport: "You lose a semifinal, you want to go home and cry, or you want to go home and get your wife and kids and go for a holiday, you don't want to play. ... I think it is very bad, it is really, really, very, very bad."
Or as the vice president of FIFA, Jim Boyce, said to the BBC: "My own personal opinion is that if it was to be stopped tomorrow, I would have no objection to that."
So the atmosphere before this match, as you can imagine, was rollicking.
Brazil was going up against Van Gaal's Dutchmen -- a clash of superpowers that might have otherwise stopped traffic across continents -- and the city conveyed the emotional register of a person encountering a Pozidriv screw from IKEA for the first time.
On my walk to the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, sidewalk vendors limply blew their last remaining yellow horns. People muttered to themselves, zombified. No one, if we're all being honest with ourselves, looked particularly thrilled about showing up in the first place.
But show up we did. All 68,034 of us, to be specific, as the arena speakers would later announce.
And the roughly 67,000 Brazilians among us, still haunted by that 7-1 destruction by Germany, did a curious thing: They began to breathe life into each other. They began to come alive.
Soon, you could track national forgiveness with a clap-o-meter. When keeper Julio Cesar walked out onto the grass for the first time, head down, the stadium gave him a heartfelt standing ovation -- acknowledgment that he was not to blame for the collapse of the Selecao. The same went for Thiago Silva, the captain and defensive ballast, who'd been suspended for the so-called "Mineirazo" due to yellow cards. And when the injured Neymar went to go sit on the bench, in uniform, and waved at his country from the JumboTron, the whole place squealed.
In fact, during the lineup roll calls, only two people got booed: Fred, the famously embattled striker whom fans had been likening to a traffic cone in the parking lot outside; and the manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari, who seems all but gone.
By the national anthem, it became obvious why Brazil hadn't disparaged this match like the Netherlands. "I guarantee that we will play this game like it was the final," Silva had said.
Which is to say that there was pressure to perform. And it was crushing.
Within 152 seconds, Robben -- who, again, was philosophically opposed to the entire concept of being there -- sliced through the defense and was mugged by Silva entering the box, triggering a successful Robin van Persie penalty kick. Another record set: fastest card obtained by a Brazilian player in World Cup history.
In the 16th minute, when defender David Luiz cleared the ball with his head into the middle of the box, right to an unmarked Daley Blind, the resulting Dutch goal set another national tournament record: This team's 13 goals surrendered were the most in Brazilian history. (The only other countries to ever give up 12 or more? North Korea and Saudi Arabia.)
But then, somehow, the bleeding mostly stopped. Brazil's desperate offense did appear as lost as ever, to the point where plausible shots on goal from Oscar felt like manna from heaven. Still, they managed to keep possession and outpace the Dutch in attack. A nightmarish sequel -- a "Garrinchazo" -- hardened into something more quotidian: straight-up mediocrity.
So Brazil booed. And kept booing.
And mere seconds after stoppage time was finally announced -- there was to be five minutes -- Dutch midfielder Georginio Wijnaldum beat Cesar with a tame effort, making it 3-0 and breaking the record for goals allowed that had been set less than 80 minutes earlier. No other defense in this tournament was even up to double-digits.
At this point, Van Gaal opted to sub in a new keeper, Michel Vorm, the third-stringer. This, it seemed, is what these fans had shown up for.
But within seconds after the whistle blew -- before the Selecao could even get off the field -- a cadre of black-shirted workers appeared, carrying the segments of a temporary grandstand. A stage was assembled, as if out of Legos, within minutes. I had totally forgotten that there was an award ceremony after the third-place game.
As Brazil trudged off the field to sad jeering, a mob of photographers rushed over to chronicle Van Gaal and Robben and the genuinely celebrating Dutch. Each player walked across the newly materialized green stage and got a medal placed around his neck. Grinning Netherlands staffers took out their cell phones and taped all of it, too.
They looked happy. This win, against an opponent that tried, desperately, to make something, anything, happen, had the odd effect of vindicating the decision to show up at all. Third place looked earned.
And in the crowd, yet another curious thing happened: All the remaining Brazilians -- maybe 40 percent had decided to stick around -- stood up and applauded. And kept applauding.
In reply, Robben and fellow Dutch veteran Dirk Kuyt led a parade around the perimeter of the field, arms around each other, with the whole team following, clapping thanks to the country and saying goodbye. Van Persie did spot a lone Netherlands fan in an orange suit, bowtie and officer's cap in the crowd; he hurdled a barrier and handed over his captain's armband. But mostly, this team was talking to their hosts.
In so doing, it was impossible not to imagine how much Brazil would've benefited from winning this match. How special it would have been if they were the ones leading an improbable, impassioned victory parade around the Estadio Nacional Mane Garrincha, just one game after being obliterated. How nice it would have been to leave all these yellow jerseys a parting gift.
"Sometimes, as a team, you have to see the light at the end of the tunnel," a pleased Van Gaal would say at the postgame news conference. "Today, we saw the light at the end of the tunnel."
For all the valid reasons to abolish this game, in other words, that is exactly why you play it. That last light, he came to acknowledge, is exactly the point of this thing.
A senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com based in New York. You can watch him every week on TV shows such as Around the Horn, The Sports Reporters and Olbermann. Follow him on Instagram (@pstorre) and Twitter (@PabloTorre).