SAO PAULO, Brazil – It’s a curse. There is no other way to explain it.
In six consecutive World Cup soccer tournaments, Mexico has made it to the second round. But it has not gone further during that span.
On Sunday, that hex was mere 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 four 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 after the 2-1 loss. “It’s just very hard to deal with when victory escapes you this way.”
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For Mexico coach Miguel Herrera, it wasn’t so much that victory escaped his team. In his mind, it was taken from Mexico by Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca, whose call against defender Rafa Marquez led to Huntelaar’s decisive goal.
“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 one goal in three matches, refusing to bend against an unbeaten team that had a World Cup-high 10 goals.
As good as Ochoa was, though, he had virtually no chance to stop a wicked Sneijder shot two 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 area. Sneijder charged and met the ball on the first hop with a strong right-footed shot that found the back of the net.
The turning point in the match came six minutes later when Robben, under pressure from multiple defenders along the end line, cut back and went down easily when Marquez stuck his foot out, clipping Robben’s heel.
Herrera called it one of three dives for Robben in the match.
Marquez said Robben admitted the penalty was a bad call, but added the Dutchman thought he should have been awarded a spot kick for an earlier challenge.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal said, “The humidity was against us, but we were fresher and fitter than the Mexicans.”
For Herrera, who rescued El Tri from the brink of elimination in World Cup qualifying, then guided the team to the second round in Brazil, there was little solace in Mexico’s remarkable journey. There was only disappointment at how it ended.
“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.”