Mexico’s coach, Miguel Herrera, has become an icon during this World Cup for his impassioned exhortations in front of the team bench. Herrera has stomped and stamped, whirled and whipped, flailed and frothed over everything from referee’s decisions to near-misses to, most notably, goals scored by his own players. Among the countless Internet tributes to Herrera is one delightful concoction that sees the coach’s wild gesticulations result in the clouds spontaneously producing a violent thunderstorm.
Deep into stoppage time here on Sunday, though, Herrera – finally – stood still. At the far end of the field, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, a forward for the Netherlands, ran up and lashed a penalty kick into the net. As the Dutch bench erupted, Herrera only stared: His team had been just a few minutes from advancing to the quarter-finals. Instead, it is now going home, surely devastated, after a brutal 2-1 defeat. It is the sixth consecutive World Cup in which Mexico has been eliminated in the Round of 16.
In his postgame news conference, he torched the referee of the match for awarding the decisive penalty after Arjen Robben dribbled into the area and went down under a challenge from Mexico’s captain, Rafael Marquez.
To Herrera – and, presumably, just about every Mexico fan at Estadio Castelao – Robben, who is known for embellishing, took a dive. The referee, Portugal’s Pedro Proenca, saw otherwise.
“The penalty was an invented penalty,” Herrera said. “Today, it was the man with the whistle who eliminated us from the World Cup.”
He added: “Out of four matches, we had three matches where the refereeing was disastrous.”
Herrera went on to question why the tournament committee assigned Proenca – who is so well-regarded that he worked both the Champions League final and the European Championships final in 2012 – to this game at all. Portugal, Herrera stated, is Proenca’s homeland and it is in the same confederation as the Netherlands.
Herrera then called on FIFA, soccer’s governing body, not to assign any more games to Proenca.
“We will leave tomorrow or the day after,” he said. “We believe the referee should be going home, too.”
It was an extended bit of petulance from Herrera, who did manage to concede that his players were to blame for allowing the Netherlands an opening in the first place. Through three full games and 88 minutes on Sunday, El Tri had allowed just one goal, but loose defending after a late corner kick allowed Wesley Sneijder the freedom to blast a 20-yard shot past Guillermo Ochoa that tied the game at 1-1.
“The tension was unbelievable; I’ve never lived through anything like that,” Daley Blind, a Dutch defender, said. “We couldn’t find our men with our passes in the first half. We struggled to get to the ball. But we came back stronger in the second.”
Sneijder’s blast was the catalyst and it must have felt like a sucker punch, too, if only because Mexico had taken the lead in such dramatic fashion. Giovani dos Santos scored his first international goal in two years with a wicked shot from outside the penalty area just after halftime and, once the euphoria subsided, the Mexicans packed in and held off the Netherlands for so long.
By the time the final minutes arrived, Dutch coach Louis van Gaal had already pulled his best scorer, Robin van Persie, because of fatigue, and it felt as if Ochoa was impenetrable. He stopped Stefan de Vrij when the defender blasted a shot from close range off a corner kick. He stopped Robben when the wily attacker slipped in along the side and tried to sneak a shot through the goalkeeper’s legs. He even stopped Huntelaar from about two yards out with a fantastic save, though the Dutch were ruled to be offside anyway.
All of it was what made the coda so cruel. Mexico had almost done it, had almost survived the Dutch attack and its own history and, perhaps most of all, the staggering conditions here. The game was played in stifling heat and the midday sun made it seem as if many of the seats in the lower bowl of the stadium were unsold. In reality, most of the fans in sections where the sun beat down had retreated to the backs of the concourses for a bit of shade.
On the field, the players received FIFA-mandated water breaks midway through both halves, a merciful exception to soccer’s typically non-stop action but, on this day, also a talking point. Van Gaal said afterward that he took full advantage of the second-half cooling break, switching up his formation and using the stoppage to explain to his players precisely what changes he wanted to see.
“I moved to Plan B,” van Gaal said. “That’s a clever way of benefiting from these breaks.”
His adjustments worked. With Dirk Kuyt and Huntelaar, who had fresh legs as a 76th-minute substitute, pushing forward, the Dutch played more long balls and tried to pressure the Mexican defence, which Herrera admitted was a bit naive in not stalling more to protect its lead.
The result was catastrophic for Mexico. First came Sneijder’s lightning bolt that gave the Dutch hope. Then came Robben’s dodging run along the end line and an outstretched leg from Marquez.
Marquez and the Mexicans protested. Robben said afterward that while he did dive once in the first half, the final call was legitimate. In the end, none of it mattered. Proenca pointed to the spot. Huntelaar converted. And Herrera, the largest character in this World Cup, barely moved.
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