That fifth game remains as elusive as ever.
In Mexico they talk frequently about the fabled "quinto partido" (fifth game) at a World Cup, the quarter-final match they always fall just short of reaching. Since returning to the competition after being banned for the 1990 iteration, El Tri have reached the last-16 every single time—but never gone any further than that.
On Sunday it looked like that might finally change, especially after Giovani dos Santos fired them into the lead three minutes after half-time. The longer the time went on, the more the Netherlands team seemed to fade in the oppressive heat of Fortaleza, and the better the chances of Miguel Herrera's side finally breaking their glass ceiling seemed to be.
And then, after the second and last cooling break of the game, the Dutch summoned an extra ounce of effort. They pressed on, relentlessly, as Mexico dropped deeper and deeper. Eventually that pressure told; Wesley Sneijder firing home in emphatic fashion with about ten minutes remaining to restore parity.
Then, at the death, Arjen Robben went down theatrically in the box after a poor challenge from Rafael Marquez. There was little contact, but the referee had no hesitation in awarding the penalty. Klass Jan Huntelaar scored for the Dutch, and Mexico's stay in purgatory will now extend for at least another four years.
“Today it was not a wonderful goal that put us out, it was bad decision by the referee, an invented penalty,” Herrera told reporters, per The Telegraph, afterwards. “It seems to me that the reason we were eliminated was the man with the whistle.
"If the referee invents a penalty of that size, you leave the World Cup after circumstances not created by you. And Robben dived three times for penalties that didn’t exist. He should have been cautioned. If you do that to the guy who tries to cheat, then he can’t cheat again.”
Herrera may have had a point—Robben admitted to an earlier dive in the game's aftermath, although he insisted the penalty was deserved—but it would be wrong to rob Netherlands of a huge amount of credit for this win. In conditions that suited their opponents better than they, heat that certainly did not favour a side chasing the game, they did brilliantly to summon enough energy to turn around the contest.
Robben's collision with Marquez was controversial, but few would suggest that Mexico ever looked like winning the game once Sneijder had put them on even terms.
"I first changed to a 4-3-3 and then we created a lot of opportunities with a shot on the post and a fantastic save," Van Gaal told reporters. "Then I moved to Plan B and yes, I did that in the cooling break, that is a clever way of benefiting from these breaks.
"It's a big compliment that my players picked up on it immediately. We have a modest group of players but they have outstanding team spirit and this is ultimately what led to the victory."
Herrera, for all his anger at Robben in the aftermath, should perhaps reflect on his side's inability to cope with their opponents' late tactical changes. He will now have a while to do so.
The Dutch, meanwhile, roll on to that fifth game. After seeing off Mexico, they will want to go further still.
Results in brief - Day 18
Netherlands 2, Mexico 1
(Sneijder, Huntelaar; Dos Santos)
Costa Rica 1, Greece 1 — Costa Rica win 5-3 on penalties
Netherlands will play Costa Rica in Salvador on Saturday July 5.
1. Notes from Day 18
Record-breakers... Costa Rica reached the World Cup quarter-finals for the first time in history, edging out Greece 5-3 on penalties. It was an impressive display of grit and determination to do so, having previously gone down to 10-men and then conceding in the final minutes of normal time to see the victory slip from their grasp. That they recovered, having seemingly been out on their feet for much of the additional period, is testament to their spirit and togetherness.
Cooling break put to good use... The early game on Sunday saw the first official use of the FIFA-permitted cooling breaks, with players given three minutes to rehydrate after 30 minutes of each half. In the second of those, however, Van Gaal also used the time to re-organise his side, a tactical tweak he credited with turning the match around. Some may believe that is cheating every bit as much as Robben's simulation on the pitch. But if the opportunity is there, coaches are going to exploit it.
Putting in a good shift... Less than a month away from his 34th birthday and playing in temperatures that nearly hit 40 degrees Celsius, Dirk Kuyt put in a remarkable shift in an unfamiliar full-back role for the Dutch. According to official FIFA statistics, Kuyt covered nearly 11,000 metres in the game—over 1,000 more than the team average. In the end, his diligence paid off.
Keeping them in it... Guillermo Ochoa stood out with a few more heroic saves as Mexico ultimately went down against the Netherlands, but it was another outstanding goalkeeper who helped guide his side to the quarter-finals. Costa Rica's Keylor Navas made a remarkable first half save to deny Dimitrios Salpingidis, and was a rock behind his defence as 10-man Costa Rica missed out on a clean sheet but held on for penalties against Greece. There, he made a stop for the ages off Theofanis Gekas to send his country through. With Navas in goal, Los Ticos will have a chance whoever they face in the tournament
2. Quote of the Day
That one was a penalty. But the other in the first half was a dive. I must apologise.
— Arjen Robben (via the Daily Telegraph)
3. Tweet of the Day
4. Goal of the Day
In a more limited field than perhaps we are used to, Sneijder's composure—under some fairly intense pressure, it must be said—edges things. From there, the Dutch suddenly had hope.
5. A good day for...
All Costa Ricans. Your country just reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup for the first time in its history! Do days get much better than that?
6. A bad day for...
Fernando Santos. Not only was the Greece coach sent off before his side's decisive penalty shootout with Costa Rica (depriving him the last-minute chance to instruct his players, or offer them encouragement from the sidelines), but it turns out his contract with the national team expires Monday. One day your fighting to reach the quarter-finals of a World Cup, the next day you're unemployed.
7. Tomorrow's schedule
France vs. Nigeria (5 p.m. GMT/12 p.m. ET)
France were one of the most impressive sides of the group stages, whereas Nigeria were perhaps one of the least enthralling to sneak into the knockout rounds. Didier Deschamps' side should win and win fairly comfortably, but the pressure of knockout football has gotten to more resilient sides before.
Germany vs. Algeria (9 p.m. GMT/4 p.m. ET)
You may hear a lot about the "Anschluss of Gijon" ahead of this game, the contrived draw between Germany and Austria that denied Algeria a place in the knockout stages of the 1982 World Cup. The North African side are here now—but it is hard to see them being able to stun a Germany side that has shown both strength and depth already in this tournament.