Mexico have an incredible capacity for drama.
Be it a mesmerizing performance in the 2011 Gold Cup, collapsing in 2013, going through four managers in two months, Raul Jimenez's qualification-saving bicycle kick or Oribe Peralta's five play-off goals, whatever happens to Mexico has made a habit of doing the unthinkable. Whatever lofty bar of intrigue and surprise El Tri set, they always manage to top.
And they did it again in the World Cup.
Three minutes away from the quarterfinals, Mexico surrendered a goal to Wesley Sneijder. Then Rafa Marquez stepped on Arjen Robben's foot, Robben theatrically fell to the turf, the referee pointed to the penalty spot and the Netherlands had turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 win.
Mexico were out of the World Cup in the round of 16 for the sixth straight time.
But while El Tri did come agonizingly close to escaping into the quarterfinals and playing the famed "fifth match," that they were even that close is somewhat of a miracle. Nearly everything had gone against them for years, and then again before the tournament. Even in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, injuries ravaged the team, and then prior to their match against the Dutch, suspension weakened them further. In the first half, another injury struck again.
Mexico shouldn't have been in the World Cup, let alone competitive. They shouldn't have been in the round of 16, let alone leading in the 87th minute. That Mexico did what they did is, in itself, remarkable.
The Netherlands had rolled through a tough Group B, finishing ahead of both Spain and Chile. Even if Mexico did well to best Croatia for second place in Group A, they were underdogs against the Dutch, but Giovani dos Santos gave El Tri a lead and Mexico began to believe they could win. The heroics of Memo Ochoa in goal only furthered their belief, not that confidence is ever in short supply when Miguel Herrera is the manager.
As the match wound down, it looked like Mexico were actually going to get through, but all they were really doing was holding on for dear life. They called upon Ochoa to save an exposed defense and were lucky the referee didn't award the Netherlands a penalty in the first half. By the waning minutes, Mexico's best defender was fortune, and then their luck ran out.
Fingers were pointed at Herrera for taking off dos Santos, or even for playing too defensively, but Mexico simply should not have been expected to hang with the Netherlands. El Tri are a flawed team, especially at the back, and while they did well to mask those deficiencies for much of the match and tournament -- something Herrera deserves huge credit for -- eventually they couldn't do it anymore.
Marquez is an old, slow defender who was turned inside out by Robben and co. all match. His being repeatedly torched wasn't much of a surprise, as Marquez has struggled as a defender in recent years, but Herrera didn't start him for defensive solidarity. His role for Mexico was as a passer from deep and a leader, something he excelled at, but he also required cover. His centerback partners had to help him defensively, as did his midfield, and against the Netherlands, neither ended up happening.
Juan Carlos Medina's ankle injury ruled him out of the tournament before it even started, denying Mexico the defensive midfielder it took them years to find. That forced them to turn to Jose Juan Vazquez, who wasn't even in the Mexico first division two years earlier. Somehow, Vazquez played superbly during the group stages, but he was suspended against the Netherlands, leaving the aging and deficient Carlos Salcido to shield the back line.
With Salcido in front of Marquez, Mexico were always in for a rough time.
The hope was that Marquez would at least get help from his centerbacks, but Francisco "Maza" Rodriguez has long been a liability. That put extraordinary pressure on Hector Moreno to be an all-world defender. Even without Vazquez, Moreno at his best could have saved Mexico, but he broke his leg and came off at halftime.
Now the center of the Mexico defense was made up of Maza, Marquez and the young Diego Reyes, with Salcido to help. That's a recipe for disaster and, eventually, that disaster arrived.
They couldn't clear a set piece and Sneijder got the Netherlands level. Then, they let Robben get down the byline and towards goal, where he and Marquez were left one on one. Even if Robben dove, he was always going to beat Marquez, and so he did, leaving Marquez to lunge desperately, step on Robben's foot and give the referee the chance to blow for a penalty.
In the end, Mexico was just left to wonder, "What if?"
From riches to rags
What if Medina doesn't get hurt? What if Vazquez doesn't get suspended? What if Moreno doesn't get hurt? And going back even further, what if Hugo Ayala's form doesn't dip, or Reyes develops as quickly as hoped, or any number of things?
Mexico were only three minutes away from their Holy Land -- a win in the round of 16. And while El Tri will lament what they let slip through their fingers, it's even more amazing that they even got to that point, because they were a team full of holes that had no business being covered up for as long as they were.
But this is El Tri, Mexico's best telenova. With them, there's nothing easy, simple or straightforward. Everything is a show. Mexico put on a great one, but they couldn't quite reach their goal.