June 29, 2014. It’s the 88th minute of the World Cup Round of 16 match between Netherlands and Mexico. Corner kick for a pressuring Netherlands squad. It has been a dream game for the Mexicans up until this point in Estadio Castelao, in the city of Fortaleza, Brazil. A dominant and daring first half led to a flurry of chances to take the lead against a historically good Netherlands squad; three close approaches by Layun, a shot by Herrera inside the penalty box that went slowly whistling by the post, a long-distance shot by Salcido that made Cillessen work, a shot by Giovani just outside the 18-yard box and a right footed shot inside the box that Cillessen barely kept out had it not been for his great reflexes. Never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined such a display of football against a world powerhouse like the “Oranje.” But the score was still nodded at the half at 0.
Mexico would find a way to account for all the close encounters they had in the first half just as we began the second 45 minutes. Just two minutes in, Giovani dos Santos found himself controlling a deflected ball right outside of the Netherland’s penalty box with his chest, and feeling the pressure from Daley Blind, covered the ball with his body exceptionally, and as soon as he had an inch of space, fired a rocket from his left foot that keeper Cillessen couldn’t reach, firing an entire country into a two-minute frenzy as well as the lead. Seven minutes later, Oribe Peralta let go a left-footed shot caught by Cillessen, and that was essentially it for Mexico, offensively speaking. The final 35-40 minutes of the match can be summed up by Mexico full-on defending with “Memo” Ochoa coming close to becoming a National hero, just praying for the minutes to go by, and hoping the “Oranje” didn’t score.
Back to the 88th minute corner kick for Netherlands. Arjen Robben crosses the ball to the far post, where it finds Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s head, who touches it backward to a wide-open Wesley Sneijder, who just 5 seconds earlier had Javier Aquino right in front of him. Sneijder pounds the ball to the back of the net and the rest is history, as Mexico fell in a downward emotional spiral from this moment on.
You can clearly see Aquino standing in front of Sneijder as the ball is travelling from Robben’s boot to Huntelaar’s head, and for some reason he decides to give a few steps to his left, opening up the lane for Sneijder and allowing the play to transpire the way it ultimately did. But what if Aquino would’ve performed his duty correctly and stayed with the ever-dangerous “Oranje’s” midfielder? Well, he for sure wouldn’t have gotten that clear shot off. Maybe the ball would’ve been cleared, maybe it would’ve been blocked by Aquino, or maybe Sneijder would’ve been forced to retrieve with the ball and search for another way. In the best-case scenario, even a counter-attack could’ve been started with the speedy Aquino. Who knows? In all sports, good things almost always happen when you fulfill your defensive assignments.
This is not to say that the Netherlands didn’t deserve to even things up. They had been pressing the Mexicans mightily for the past half hour. The truth is Mexico had gotten lucky and Ochoa had yet another amazing display in what will by far be his best World Cup in his career. It looked like one of those classic games where the better-quality team just can’t get a goal no matter how hard they try and it’s just not meant to be for them on that particular day. This is the closest Mexico has ever come to moving on to their 5th World Cup game.
I believe that if Aquino stays with Sneijder all the way through on that play, the ensuing minutes are changed forever. The Robben flop which is called a penalty doesn’t occur and Mexico would’ve found a way to hold on, as nothing was getting past Ochoa that day. Mexico would’ve continued to give it their all defensively, and I just can’t see the “Oranje” pulling level after that. Mexico just had that little dose of luck paired with a great keeper and an inspired Giovani, where you could feel this combination was going to get them past the Netherlands.
The even sadder question is, what was to come for Mexico past this match? The path for Mexico had been set up in such a way that it seemed like destiny to not only play their first 5th game in a WC, but to reach the semis for the first time in history as well, as they would’ve played CONCACAF rival Costa Rica in the Quarter-Finals. Costa Rica was playing at a heck of a level, but with no disrespect intended, they were no powerhouse. They were without a doubt the easiest matchup in the final 8. Mexico could’ve, and I believe would’ve defeated the “Ticos” and would’ve gotten a tough but struggling Argentina team in the semis who barely got through the previous 2 rounds, one of them in extra-time. Mexico had a legitimate shot of reaching a World Cup Final. The way things lined up for Mexico in that World Cup will probably never happen again.
And once again, one is left to only wonder and dream of what could’ve been. What is true is in the ’98, ’02, ’06, and ’14 World Cups, Mexico proved to be more than a worthy opponent for their rivals. They lived up to the hype and for most of those minutes, played on a very similar level as their opponents and could’ve just as well won any of those Round of 16 matchups. Instead, history remains the same and we continue to wait to see Mexico play its famous 5th World Cup match.