SAO PAULO – It’s a curse. There’s no other way to explain it.
In six consecutive World Cup tournaments, Mexico has made it to the second round. But it has not gone further.
Sunday that streak was only minutes away from ending when the Netherlands struck for goals by Wesley Sneijder in the 88th minute and Klaas Jan Huntelaar on a penalty kick 4 minutes into stoppage time to send Mexico home early again.
“It isn’t easy to go out this way, the way this match went,” Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said. “It’s just very hard to deal with when victory escapes you this way.”
For Mexico coach Miguel Herrera, it wasn’t so much that victory escaped them. In his mind it was taken from them by Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca, whose questionable call against defender Rafa Marquez led to Huntelaar’s game-winning penalty shot.
“We were eliminated because of an invented penalty,” Herrera said. “We are going home now and so should the referee.”
Playing in the intense heat and humidity of Fortaleza, both teams struggled through a scoreless first half before Giovani Dos Santos put Mexico in front with a brilliant left-footed strike in the 48th minute.
And for another 40 minutes that goal stood up with Ochoa, who had given up only one goal in three games, refusing to bend against an unbeaten team that had a World Cup-high 10 goals.
As good as Ochoa was, though, he had no chance to stop a wicked Sneijder shot 2 minutes from the end of regulation time.
The sequence started with an Arjen Robben corner kick toward the far post, where Huntelaar chested it out toward the top of the box. Sneijder charged into the area and met the ball on the first hop with a strong right-footed shot that found the back of the net.
But the turning point came 6 minutes later when Robben, under pressure from defenders along the end line, cut back, then went down easily when Marquez stuck his foot out, clipping Robben’s foot.
Herrera called it one of three dives for Robben in the game. Proenca called it a foul, awarding the Netherlands a penalty kick. And again Ochoa had no chance, diving to the right as Huntelaar’s shot went to the left just inside the post.
“We ended up losing because he whistled a penalty that did not exist,” Herrera said.
For Herrera, who rescued Mexico from the brink of elimination in World Cup qualifying, then guided it to the second round in Brazil, there was little solace in the team’s remarkable journey. There was only disappointment at how it ended, with Mexico being cursed again 6 minutes from the quarterfinals.
“We’ve achieved some very good things, but nobody can take away the bitter taste of this defeat,” Herrera said. “We did a good job but made mistakes, while the Netherlands did a great job to hold on, keep fighting and finally turn the scoreline around.
“But this wasn’t the Dutch team everyone’s been talking about. This is a side that’s vulnerable and can be beaten. In physical terms, we never dipped, we were solid and we fought to the final whistle. In my view, my players were extraordinary.”