RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Regulation time doesn’t seem to mean much at this stage, judging by the way Netherlands, Costa Rica and Brazil have advanced through the first of the World Cup knockout rounds.
The Dutch needed a penalty deep in stoppage time to seal a 2-1 comeback win over Mexico and advance to a match against a Costa Rica lineup that beat Greece on penalties later Sunday to reach the World Cup quarterfinals for the first time.
The Costa Ricans had to play for almost an hour with 10 men, and just had the legs to win 5-3 on penalties after the match finished level at 1-1 after extra time.
That was the second penalty shootout of the weekend, following Brazil’s narrow win over Chile on Saturday.
In oppressive heat at Fortaleza, a Dutch attack that scored five goals against 2010 champion Spain in its opening game was on the verge of a second-round exit until finding a way past Mexico goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in the 88th minute.
Once they did, the turnaround happened quickly. Wesley Sneijder’s bullet-like strike cancelled out Giovani Dos Santos’ 48th-minute opener for Mexico. Klaas Jan Huntelaar sealed the win with a calmly-taken penalty late in stoppage time after Mexico captain Rafael Marquez took down Robben in the area.
The veteran Dutch forward had been dangerous in attack but all his efforts had been fruitless, as had his frequent tumbles and appeals for penalties and free kicks.
“Unbelievable,” Robben said. “Five minutes from full time, we were out.”
It was unbelievable for Mexico coach Miguel Herrera, too. The effusive coach was mystified that the penalty was awarded by referee Pedro Proenca, disputing the contact that resulted in Robben sprawling on the pitch.
“Today it was the man with the whistle who eliminated us from the World Cup,” Herrera said. “We ended up losing because he whistled a penalty that did not exist.
“I repeat this because (Robben) dived three times. The referee should have cautioned him. If that had happened, Robben would have been cautioned or even sent off.”
In recent seasons Robben has been trying to shake off his reputation for diving. Against Mexico, he only compounded it.
“I have to say, in the first half — and right away offer my excuses — I dived,” he told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “I mustn’t do that. It was another stupid action.”
He wasn’t sorry about the injury-time incident that incensed Mexico and condemned it to its sixth consecutive second-round loss at World Cups.
With temperatures hitting 32 Celsius (90 Fahrenheit) and in 68 per cent humidity, FIFA instituted cooling breaks 30 minutes into each half in Fortaleza so players could rehydrate.
Netherlands coach Louis van Gaal used the second-half break to make a tactical change, switching from a 5-3-2 system to a more traditional Dutch 4-4-3, bringing Huntelaar in to replace the tiring Robin van Persie.
“Yes, we escaped,” Van Gaal said. “But we showed that we could create more chances with 4-3-3, and the players handled this shift very well.”
The Costa Ricans, rank outsiders at the start of the tournament, were fluid in attack as they topped a group containing former champions Italy, Uruguay and England to advance to the knockout stage, but then had to struggle against Greece at Recife.
Costa Rica took an early second-half lead through captain Bryan Ruiz but, after being reduced to 10 men when Oscar Duarte was sent off for his second booking in the 66th minute, conceded an injury-time equalizer to Sokratis Papastathopoulos that sent the match into extra time at 1-1.
The Costa Ricans appeared on the verge of exhaustion as Greece relentlessly pressed forward.
Greece, which sealed its place in the knockout stages for the first time with a late penalty winner against Ivory Coast, couldn’t find the winner in extra time despite a numerical advantage.
Given a few moments to recover their breath, the Costa Ricans were perfect in the shoot out, with Michael Umana scoring the decisive penalty.
“To the entire people in Costa Rica, those at home and out on the streets, this is for you,” Costa Rica coach Jorge Luis Pinto said.
“This is a people that love football and they deserve it. … We will continue fighting. We will go on. We see beautiful things.”