“Play like never before and lose like always."
In the last three World Cups, Mexico has put in quality performances against top opposition, only to go out at the same round of 16 stage that has proved El Tri’s graveyard at every edition of the tournament since 1994.
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This time, Mexico’s exit left a particularly bitter taste, with Arjen Robben winning a debatable penalty in second-half injury time. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar stepped up to seal a victory, when for most the game El Tri had been the better side.
Miguel Herrera said afterward that it was “the man with the whistle” who sent Mexico home.
"If a referee invents a penalty, you're out of the World Cup," he said. "I hope they have a look at what happened and that this gentleman goes home just like we are."
The Mexico coach can complain all he wants, but the reality of the modern game is that Rafa Marquez made a mistake. He should be experienced and cool enough not to stick a leg out in that situation. That may sound harsh, but how many fans of the Netherlands will care about Robben’s exaggerated fall right now? And if Javier Hernandez had done the same at the other end, would El Tri still complain about the ref?
The truth is Robben tricked the referee and won the game for his side. He’d also been a thorn in the side of El Tri all afternoon with his direct running and should’ve been awarded a penalty in the first half.
Mexico and Herrera have been a revelation this World Cup and deserve all the praise that has been poured on them, but it was El Tri’s mistakes late on, not Robben’s theatrics, that invited defeat.
“We can’t manage referees, they are humans," Hernandez said afterward. "Unfortunately sometimes some mistakes hurt a lot of people, a country.”
Herrera is known for his attack-minded strategies, but brought off Giovani dos Santos for Javier Aquino in the 61st minute, instead of introducing a striker alongside Oribe Peralta to stretch the Dutch defense and make them think twice about piling bodies forward.
Aquino’s introduction allowed the Dutch to attack as Mexico sat deeper and deeper, inviting pressure on them. Combined with El Tri’s tired legs, the prospect of a Dutch equalizer seemed increasingly likely as the second half wore on.
And when there was a simple lack of concentration in marking in the 88th minute, which left Wesley Sneijder free on the edge of the area, the Netherlands took full advantage.
But the negatives of the final 10 minutes shouldn’t outweigh what was another fine performance from Mexico. El Tri has come a long way this World Cup. Mexico has erased the memories of the shambolic qualifying and restored pride in a national team that was seemingly on a meteoric rise until the annus horribilis of 2013.
Dos Santos struck from outside the box to hand El Tri a deserved lead three minutes after halftime. There was no difference in quality and Mexico’s players can leave the World Cup with pride.
“We depart sad because this is not what we wanted, but with our heads high because we left it all on the field,” Peralta said.
A year ago the team was lacking direction and style. Now Mexico makes sense. Although captain Marquez’s international career is over and Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez and Peralta are the wrong side of 30, the rest of Herrera’s starting XI from the group stage will all be around in four years, with more experience and more nous in closing out games when ahead.
Underneath is the generation of players that won the Under-17 World Cup in 2011 that could yet come good in time for Russia 2018. And youth systems in the Liga MX continue to improve and produce talent.
The mood and outlook in Mexico might be grim after celebrations were harshly quashed, but Herrera’s side has performed with dignity, a big heart and a work ethic that Mexico fans demand and respect. Not that it makes the exit any easier to swallow for El Tri’s faithful followers.
“It’s a moment of frustration, of sadness, knowing we had it so close and we let it go doesn’t leave us any good sensation," midfielder Andres Guardado said. "At least for me it’s not worth to say ‘we were so close’ when in the end we finished in the same place, and that’s very sad because I don’t think we had such big excitement around the team in previous World Cups.”