RECIFE, Brazil -- It took 10 minutes to change an entire nation's trajectory. Until the 72nd minute of Mexico's match against Croatia, they were lurching toward yet another scoreless draw. It would have been good enough for Mexico to advance to the World Cup's knockout stage -- having held Brazil to the same result, they needed only a tie -- but it would have felt less as though they had landed in the round of 16 than fallen into it. Star-crossed Mexico -- stumbling, mutinous Mexico, Graham Zusi's Mexico, the Mexico that had needed to win a playoff over New Zealand just to qualify for Brazil -- would have been deemed a threat only to stall themselves to death.
What now, Mexico? A team that had scored only one (official) goal in its first two matches suddenly sparked in front of their thousands of disbelieving fans, the Mexicans looking as though they couldn't help but put the ball in the net. First, its iconic captain, Rafa Marquez, headed home a corner kick. Then came another goal, three minutes later, the desperate Croatians having lost all their shape, a ball across the box sent home by Andres Guardado with a punishing left. And then Mexico pocketed one more for good measure, just 10 delirious minutes after the first -- another header, this one by Javier Hernandez, Chicharito, who hadn't scored in 564 confidence-sapping minutes.
His goal not only left him in tears of relief, it transformed the Arena Pernambuco from an amphitheater of doubt into a cathedral of hope.
Its minister was Miguel Herrera, Mexico's savior of a manager. Each successive goal turned him into more and more of a crazed believer, his tongue and eyes racing to see which could advance the farthest from his head. Twice Mexico's previous hero, goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa, ran all the way from his goal and into his leaping manager's open arms. The third time, Ochoa didn't even get chance to reach the sideline before Herrera was pinned to the ground, a man on the verge of weightlessness. It was like watching your overly emotional uncle -- set upon and anxious all his life -- finally see one of his dreams come true.
In this case it was an emphatic, statement-making victory, the final 3-1. Herrera had put himself back together by the time he arrived at his postgame news conference. His shirt was tucked in again; he had picked all the grass from his jacket. "Let us enjoy today," he said, as though he hadn't already. "We're going to have dinner with our families, and we are going to celebrate."
Some poor restaurant in Recife did not know what was about to hit it. But Herrera knew too well his team's next reward for having reached its sixth consecutive round of 16: the Netherlands and their ruthless attack (Sunday, noon ET, ESPN). "Tomorrow," Herrera said, waving his hands in the crackling air, hoping for just a little more time to take in his open-ended victory. For a man who had carried his team so far in so little time, one unfettered night didn't seem too much to ask.
There had been a few otherworldly moments late in the match when even the top of Group A was within their grasp, when they might have dodged the Dutch and faced Chile instead by besting Brazil in the most improbable way: goal differential. Mexico, winning on goals? And yet one more would have put them into orbits that would have seemed unreachable not so long ago. That was before Brazil scored again, eventually beating Cameroon 4-1, the roaring Brazilians in the crowd in Recife alerting the players on the pitch to their second-best fate. Croatia scored in the 87th minute to seal it when Ivan Perisic struck home a low drive.
It was the first goal Ochoa and Mexico had allowed in the tournament, and it might have scared them a little if they hadn't already made themselves immune to their former reality. "My legs are not shaking," Herrera said. "They are not trembling, not at all."
On a night when everything finally went right, Ochoa even made a faith-reviving stop soon after, finishing the match and his group-stage campaign like the rest of his team: with a boost rather than a fizzle, Mexico now ascendant, this country of rockets.