It was a cruel way to lose. And it almost happened twice.
Mexico led the heavily favored Netherlands team, 1-0, with three minutes left in the World Cup Round of 16 match, but two goals in the last nine minutes doomed El Tri and sent the Dutch to the quarterfinals.
A goal in extra time by Greece also doomed Costa Rica, but to a less drastic fate: 30 minutes of extra time and the added drama of a penalty kick shootout. They won 1-1 (5-3) and became the first Central American team to reach the quarterfinals at a World Cup.
After a beautiful Giovanni dos Santos goal and another eye-popping performance by Mexican keeper, Memo Ochoa, Wesley Sneijder finally broke through for the Netherlands from the top of the penalty area in the 87th minute, he boomed the ball into the left-hand corner, tying the game.
It had been that way for much of the second half, as the Mexicans were flagging and the Dutch were just getting warmed up.
The Portuguese referee, Pedro Proenca, who blew a number of calls during the match, then called for 6 minutes of injury time—far more than seemed appropriate and more than during the first half, when a Mexican player, defender Hector Moreno, had to be carted off the field.
Two minutes into the extra time, Mexico’s most veteran player, Rafa Marquez, made a big-time blunder, fouling Arjen Robben and setting up Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s game-winning penalty kick.
Throughout the Cup, Holland has started games slowly, falling behind Spain 1-0, and heading into halftime tied with all three of their previous opponents—Spain (1-1), Australia (1-1) and Chile (0-0).
But whether it’s conditioning or being better able to pace their play, the Dutch have done the bulk of their offensive damage in the second half (8 goals for, 1 against).
So it was cause for optimism, but only of a muted sort, that Mexico was able to dominate the early going, creating the best opportunities in the first 25 minutes.
The temperature in Fortaleza was in the high 80s, and the Proenca called breaks in each half so that the players could drink water and cool off for a few minutes.
There were two dubious non-calls that probably should have been awarded penalty kicks, one in which Mexico’s Hector Herrera got kicked in the face, the other a two-player takedown that left Holland’s Arjen Robben limping slightly.
It was a scoreless tie at the half.
Three minutes into the second period, however, Mexico’s Giovanni dos Santos rifled a left footed shot across his body and just beyond the sprawled arms of Dutch keeper Jasper Cillessen.
On a corner kick in the 57th minute, Stefan de Vrij took a point-black shot on Mexico’s goal, but Ochoa got his hands on it, deflected the ball to a post, and it bounced out.
But, in an omen of things to come, the Netherlands started getting the better of the action after that, maintaining possession and attacking more effectively.
Ochoa stopped Robben one-on-one in the 73rd minute. In fact, Ochoa was able to handle everything the Dutch side threw at him—even on a clear offsides situation off a free kick.
Until Sneijder finally broke through, that is.
For Mexico, it was the sixth consecutive time the team has reached the Round of 16 and no further. El Tri reached the quarterfinals in 1970 and 1986, both World Cups held in Mexico.
Even so, there was relief and pride for Mexico fans that the team was able to get as far as it did despite barely qualifying for World Cup.
In Recife, Costa Rica and Greece played 120 minutes to a 1-1 deadlock, and for the second time in four matches, a Round of 16 game was decided by penalty kicks.
The first half was a lackluster affair, with both sides having a hard time putting together good sequences. If anything, the more defensive-minded Greeks looked more dangerous on the offensive end than the Ticos.
In the 52nd minute, Bryan Ruiz, the captain of the Tico team and its most famous player, took a cross and calmly rolled it into the corner of the net, almost as if in slow motion.
In the 65th minute, defender Oscar Duarte earned a second yellow card and got himself kicked out of the game, leaving Costa Rica a man down for the rest of the match.
The Costa Rican keeper, Keylor Navas, made a series of amazing saves, especially in the second half, but in the first minute of stoppage time, Sokratis Papastathopoulos converted on a rebound of yet another Navas save, to tie the game at 1.
The Greeks owned the overtime period, pressing the Ticos throughout. Their physical play had a number of the Costa Ricans, even Navas, nursing injuries, and Konstantinos Mitroglou very nearly had the game winner in the stoppage for overtime.
The Australian referee, Benjamin Williams, reacted sharply, and somewhat strangely to both benches. In one instance he ran halfway across the field to give a card to Costa Rican reserve midfielder Oscar Granados.
Just before the shootout, he ejected Greece’s Portuguese coach, Fernando Santos.
Despite being the more exhausted side, the Ticos nailed all five of their penalty kicks, while Navas made a picture-perfect save on Theofanis Gekas' kick, diving to his left for the stop.
Costa Rica will play the Netherlands on July 5.