Mexico's dream dies in Dutch defeat
It was once so hopeful and so vibrant in Fortaleza. The fans in the stands were singing the national anthem along with the players. The early chances, six of them in the first half, belonged to El Tri, with only one for the Dutch.
The heat was clearly a factor in the match. Mexico's players handled it better, producing lively runs and dangerous opportunities. The Netherlands players looked weary and wilted, with few runs into Mexico's box. Nigel de Jong did not last even 10 minutes, getting subbed out early apparently due to injury, although he walked off the field on his own power.
Yet Mexico could not finish their attempts on goal. Miguel Layun, Hector Herrera, Gio dos Santos and Carlos Salcido missed wide or high or forced Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen into decent, although unspectacular, saves.
Even the most fervent El Tri fan probably felt frustrated as the opening period came to a close, feeling a sickly familiar sense of wasted possibilities and Mexico's talent shining brightly for a while on the world stage before fading away.
Indeed, it seemed as if the opening goal would belong to the Dutch, even after appearing only as a dim shadow of the great squad that dominated Spain. When Arjen Robben went down in Mexico's box in the 45th minute, it was arguably a penalty committed by El Tri captain Rafael Marquez. However, whether due in part to Robben's reputation for diving or not, the foul was not called by Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca and Mexico escaped.
Many anticipated the Netherlands would regroup at halftime and come out determined to bury Mexico. Yet it was El Tri that was resolute from the start of the second half. The players carried their momentum from the first half, with a particular crucial difference. In the 48th minute, Dos Santos cracked a shot from the top of the box that had just enough angle to carry past the outstretched arm of Cillessen, who reacted late.
Mexico coach Miguel Herrera leaped into the air to celebrate with his players and all the supporters who breathed a sigh of relief that El Tri had finally applied the right finishing touch to an attack.
Facing elimination from the World Cup, the Dutch put aside their discomfort with the heat and tried to fight their way back into the game. Mexican goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, who hadn't had to make a single save in the first half, was forced to make an impressive reaction save in the 57th minute on Stefan de Vrij. The ball still nearly sneaked in from the rebound as it hit the post from Ochoa's block, but the bounce was kind to Mexico and fell outside of the goal.
Mexico's fans in the stands, deliriously happy with the lead, were almost afraid to hope their team would hold on. Dutch fans anxiously urged their squad on in the chase for the equalizer.
In the 75th minute, Ochoa stopped a breakaway from Robben again. The ensuing corner led to a Ron Vlaar header that was high over the crossbar.
Ochoa again denied a close-range attack from Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in the 85th minute. Even though the shot was nullified for being offside, it again revealed how adamant the Mexican squad was about holding on to its dream of a fifth game.
But in the 88th minute, just at the close of the match, hearts broke all over Mexico when Wesley Sneijder shot a rocket through a crowd of players and into the corner of the goal. Ochoa, who was slightly screened by the bodies in front of him, didn't even have time to dive and attempt a save. It was only his second conceded goal of the tournament.
Mexico scrambled to recover from Sneijder's gut punch, to keep the courage they had displayed throughout the match, while the Dutch, heartened by the equaliser, drove on for the win. Perhaps they sensed that the will of El Tri was faltering, or perhaps they were motivated to fight for victory before extra time arrived to sap their fragile energy reserves.
Robben was again dancing with the ball in the box when his touch put the ball just out of the reach of Marquez, who continued his kick into Robben's leg. Robben's dramatic fall was no doubt exaggerated, but the foul was quite clear. This time, Proenca did not hesitate to grant the penalty.
Huntelaar stepped up to take it, staring down Ochoa. His hard, low shot into corner was like a knife into the airy hopes of all Mexico fans, deflating them instantly.
It seemed like a nightmare. Mexico was only five minutes or so from the quarterfinals, from breaking the hex, only to have it all snatched away so quickly and completely by a finally roused Netherlands team.
The dream is dead, but to aim high in a World Cup is always worth dreaming. Mexico leaves Brazil with pride and the dull pain of a heartache that, even after giving it their all, it wasn't quite enough.
Andrea Canales covers both Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Follow her on Twitter @soccercanales.