Last 16 exit another failure for Mexico
What really hurt about Mexico's exit from the World Cup wasn't just the nature of the late Dutch comeback, it was what could've followed.
Instead of leaving for home on Monday, El Tri would've been preparing for an all-CONCACAF quarterfinal against Costa Rica. It would've been a very winnable game for a Mexico side that had already outplayed Croatia, matched Brazil and shaded Louis van Gaal's Netherlands at Brazil 2014.
Not to belittle Costa Rica's efforts so far at this World Cup, but judging by the Central American side's performance later Sunday against Greece, Mexico would've been the favourite against Los Ticos. From there, it would've potentially been semifinal time and just a short 180 minutes from lifting the cup. Manager Miguel Herrera's pre-tournament statements about reaching the final suddenly wouldn't have seemed out of place.
A victory against the Netherlands would've laid down a marker and qualified El Tri to the quarterfinals of a World Cup for the first time ever outside of Mexico. But Mexican dreams were destroyed by slack marking and a classy finish from Wesley Sneijder in the 88th minute to equalize and then Arjen Robben's calculated, exaggerated fall that convinced Portuguese referee Pedro Proenca that Rafa Marquez had fouled him late in second-half injury time.
It left a country distraught.
"The one that hurts most, by a way, was this one," read the headline of sports daily Record on Monday morning, providing a succinct, if not catchy, summary of the country's mood.
If the Netherlands had defeated Mexico 3-0 with a dominant performance, it would've been easier to take. But Herrera was well aware that his team was the better side.
"In Germany 2006, Mexico was better than Argentina in the round of 16, but a golazo by Maxi Rodriguez knocked us out," explained Herrera during his postgame news conference. "Today it wasn't like that, there was no golazo; it was a bad refereeing decision."
He added: "Tomorrow we're leaving and we hope that the referee also goes."
It was a statement tinged with a bitterness that was understandable, even if it took the emphasis off the way Mexico retreated in the face of the Dutch onslaught.
Overall, Mexico left a good impression on Brazil 2014, but it is difficult to get a perspective while the wound is still so raw and the "what ifs" and "could've beens" are lingering. El Tri played well in every game, the players made the country proud with their performances and the world got a very positive representation of Mexican football.
Players like Jose Juan Vazquez, Guillermo Ochoa, Hector Herrera and Paul Aguilar stepped it up a level during the tournament, while veterans Rafa Marquez and Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez were exceptional. The performances came at a time in world football in which the differences between the traditional powers and the rest is shrinking, with tactical developments and improvement in the professionalisation of the game around the globe.
Mexico is undoubtedly part of that trend. Ask Van Gaal or Brazil coach Luiz Felipe Scolari what they think of Mexican football after facing Herrera's side. Germany, Argentina, Chile, France, Colombia and every other nation that has put on good displays at Brazil 2014 know that El Tri would have given them a very tough game.
But calling it Mexico's best World Cup ever is pushing it.
It might sound unfair to judge this squarely on results, considering how few games are played each World Cup, but this is a results business, and Mexico's obsession with the "fifth game," or quarterfinal, means that El Tri failed at this World Cup.
Home advantage helped El Tri to the quarterfinal in 1986. They went undefeated in the group stage, got past Bulgaria and took West Germany to penalties. That remains Mexico's best performance. El Tri also reached the quarters in 1970, but only 16 teams participated and the quarterfinal stage followed the group stage.
The search to match those two World Cups will continue, and there are plenty of reasons to believe that the future is bright. There are new generations coming through to compete for places with the current crop of players, and only Rodriguez, Carlos Salcido, Marquez and Oribe Peralta, of the outfield players, were over 30 years old at this World Cup.
The first decision will be about Miguel Herrera's future, and he is right to take his time over it. Mexico managers don't tend to last very long historically. The conditions have to be in place to ensure he gets the support and structure he requires to build toward yet another attempt at Russia 2018 to reach that infamous quinto partido that remains an albatross around Mexico's neck.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.